MIAMI – Passengers are coming back to the airlines – despite the “quite choppy” COVID-19 recovery, according to Delta Air Lines (DL) CEO Ed Bastian.

“It’s a couple year journey. Domestic is going to come back faster than international. Leisure travel is going to come back faster than business,” Bastian told Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit on Monday.

“But we’re staying focused every single day and continue to see small signs, but encouraging signs, of light at the end of the tunnel,” he added.

Despite the record number of new infections in the U.S. and the general consumer fear about the safety of air travel, Bastian insisted that air travel is a relatively safe mode of transmission. A recent study from the International Air Transport Association, IATA, showed just 44 people contracted COVID-19 out of more than 1.2 billion passengers who have flown globally this year.

Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

No Documented Cases on Board Delta Aircraft

“We haven’t had a single documented case of transmission aboard our aircraft, even though we’re flying one million per week,” Bastian said. He cited low risks of transmission given the filtration systems and sanitation measures employed by airlines, among other factors.

“We’re working with experts such as the Harvard School of Public Health. They are is coming out with their analysis that indicates the safety and the really extraordinary low transmission risk aboard airplanes,” Bastian said. He added that protecting the health of passengers and employees is paramount to Delta’s recovery.

“Wearing a mask is among the simplest and most effective actions we can take to reduce transmission,” Bastian wrote in a memo last week. And the airline added “460 people to our no-fly list for refusing to comply with our mask requirement,” Bastian said.

Delta also plans to keep blocking the middle seat on its flights, even though a recent U.S. Military backed study showed it was unnecessary. Other airlines are selling the middle seat, yet Delta plans to hold the line.

“Even with 40% of our seats not being sold, we had more average passenger revenue at Delta than the main competitors that we go up against,” Bastian said.

Photo: Luca Flores/Airways

‘We Are That Good’

Delta is now flying more than one million passengers a week according to Bastian. That’s an improvement over April when passenger revenue was only 5% of what it had been a year earlier.

The COVID-19 era of 2020 is an alternate reality compared to 2019. Last year Delta posted pre-tax income of $6.2 billion, an almost 20% increase over 2018 and the best in the company’s history. The future looked so good that the airline returned $1.6 billion in profit sharing to its 90,000 employees, according to Yahoo! Finance.

“As we enter 2020, demand for travel is healthy and our brand preference is growing positioning Delta to deliver another year of strong results,” Bastian wrote in January, one month before the pandemic decimated the airline.

According to the trade group Airlines For America, A4A, the industry hit bottom in April when passenger was at only 4% compared to 2019. But, according to Yahoo!, the Transportation Security Administration,TSA, reports passengers moving through airport security last week ran at 64% of what it had been last year at this time.

Bastian insists safety on board planes is drawing customers back, and has never been more important. “Most customers that fly our planes don’t even think about their flight safety. We are that good,” Bastian told Yahoo! Finance, but pointed out that Delta executives “think about it every moment of the day.”

Featured image: Francesco Cecchetti/Airways