Delta CEO Ed Bastian: ‘Revenge travel’ a $300 billion phenomenon

The summer of 2022 proved to be a season of “travel chaos,” but there’s something funny about this year: People just keep hitting the road. Even stubbornly “sticky” inflation and the highest ticket prices in many years aren’t enough to spoil the appeal. And Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian just revealed to Fortune that demand remains “really, really strong,” to say the least. In fact, as he told Fortune CEO Alan Murray and editor-at-large Michal Lev-Ram on the Leadership Next podcast this week, his team has quantified Americans’ thirst for “revenge travel” right now, and it’s a huge number. 

“People talk about revenge travel, or pent-up travel—this is beyond anything that people can classify as truly pent-up,” Bastian said. “We went through several years of people not being able to get back out and travel and experience and see loved ones, see their business colleagues, adventures—all the reasons we travel. And people had a lot of time.” 

He revealed that he asked his team to measure the gap between inherent demand for U.S. travel that couldn’t be met over the past three years, based on “any kind” of historical pattern: “That gap is $300 billion—with a B.” 

Delta is currently seeing demand it’s never seen before, he continued, “and there’s no end in sight. We’ve had the 20 largest cash sales days in our history all occur this year.”

While explosive demand is always good, the travel sector’s future remains a complete unknown. As Lev-Ram pointed out, “revenge travel” is a new development. The concept has been widely predicted in the media since 2020, but has picked up speed since vaccines became widely available in spring 2021, and restless people were eager to shake their cabin fever. Especially as remote work became an option across nearly all white-collar sectors, the reasons to stay home dwindled to none, and people rushed to ticket sites.

Revenge travel has roots in “revenge spending,” an economic trend that originated as “baofuxing xiaofei” in 1980s China, when a growing middle class had an insatiable appetite for foreign luxury goods. That has persisted to the current day, helping European luxury firms conquer the world and making LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault the world’s richest man for much of the past two years. Would Americans turn to revenge travel the way the Chinese turned to revenge spending? Yes. Yes they would.

Bastian said Delta is adjusting to how revenge travel is sweeping the nation. Consumer behaviors have changed a lot since the pandemic, Bastian said, and people book further out now. That has meant a big change to Delta’s business model, he added.

“One of the things that we did during COVID, which I’m glad we did, and we’re not going to change back, is we eliminated change fees from our products,” he said. “So people can book with confidence, because people want to make certain they get their trip.” 

In other words, if you’re already paying a much higher price for the vacation you put off for years, you don’t want to worry about a change fee on top of it.

Revenge is a dish best served without change fees

The pandemic “forced people to reevaluate the importance of travel in their lives,” Tina Edmundson, luxury president at Marriott International, told Fortune in October 2021. What was once a want became a need. 

“Travel is good for the world,” Edmundson added. “It opens minds, fosters connection, broadens perspectives, and fuels inspiration. The pandemic made people reprioritize, and travel has risen to the top of the list as many people have developed a new appreciation for travel, or it has taken on a greater meaning and higher importance.”

That hasn’t changed much. Nearly half (46%) of consumers around the world said travel is more important to them now than it was pre-pandemic, according to Expedia Group’s recent Traveler Insights Report.

“It’s more anecdotal evidence, but what I’m hearing is that travelers are putting more importance on having experiences and are cutting back in other areas [to be able to travel more],” Matthias Tillmann, CFO of global travel deals search site Trivago, told Fortune’s Sheryl Estrada in March.

Last summer, when travel picked up again in earnest, was “very hard,” Bastian said, because it seemed like everyone wanted to travel at the same time. “It didn’t matter where they went or what they paid. They just wanted to be out,” he recalled. 

As a result, the airline industry as a whole struggled to upskill their workers—and hire new ones to meet demand. This summer, Bastian said, they’re ready; Delta has hired over 25,000 people who are trained, experienced, and ready to face the crowds. 

As a result, Delta, 85th in the Fortune 500, is forecasting that it will stay “very, very busy,” Bastian said. Its operating revenue for the year reached $50.6 billion, up 69% from the dog days of 2021. “And we’re going to make sure that we’re staffed and we’ve got every plane possible that we’re utilizing.” 

That’s not to say that just because everyone wants to fly, every competitor is in the same pole position. There are many constraints around the industry, he added. 

“The aircraft manufacturers aren’t producing as many aircraft on time. The engine makers are having challenges delivering the engines that we need, or the repairs that are needed. Supply-chain challenges and staffing challenges still exist in some parts of the industry,” he said. “[But] there’s more balance between the supply than ever, in terms of what you can put out, with strong demand, which is yielding some good results.” Revenge travel just isn’t like anything we’ve seen before, and Bastian made clear that Delta wants to be prepared for it.


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