With the COVID-19 pandemic escalating in the United States, U.S. airlines are confronting an unprecedented drop in demand. Numerous companies have canceled all business travel, public health authorities are urging people (especially older Americans and those with underlying medical conditions) to avoid nonessential travel, and the U.S. has imposed travel restrictions barring many foreign nationals from entering the country.

Earlier this week, United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAL) President Scott Kirby told investors that in recent days, net bookings had plunged 100% for travel to Europe and Asia and fallen 70% in the domestic market. As a result, he said United would slash domestic capacity by 10% and international capacity by 20% in April, with an overall 20% reduction likely in May.

That sounded like a shockingly severe drop in demand. However, on Friday, Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) CEO Ed Bastian announced that Delta was experiencing negative net bookings (i.e., more cancellations than new reservations) for travel over the next four weeks. With demand evaporating, Delta is moving aggressively to limit the losses from this health crisis and ensure that the company doesn't suffer permanent damage.

A Delta Air Lines plane parked on the tarmac

Delta Air Lines has seen bookings collapse from the COVID-19 pandemic. Image source: Delta Air Lines.

A rapidly developing situation

At the beginning of March, there were significant COVID-19 outbreaks in Europe and Asia, but fewer than 70 confirmed cases in the United States. Over the past two weeks, the situation has changed rapidly. Hundreds of new U.S. cases have been reported every day recently, bringing the nationwide total to more than 2,000 by Friday, despite very limited testing so far. The scale of the outbreak in Europe has increased significantly since the beginning of March, too.

Airlines have also had to cope with rapidly changing rules on who is allowed to travel where. Travel to and from China has been severely restricted since the beginning of February. Last Wednesday, President Trump announced new restrictions barring most travel from continental Europe to the U.S. except for American citizens and permanent residents. Several other countries, like Argentina and India, are severely restricting or banning travel from the U.S.

With new developments every day, it has been virtually impossible for airlines to make accurate demand projections. However, it's clear that demand for air travel within the U.S. and to Latin America has plunged dramatically, while demand for flights to and from Asia and Europe has almost disappeared entirely. As a result, airline stocks have plunged. Even after a double-digit gain on Friday, Delta Air Lines shares have fallen 35% this year.

DAL Chart

Delta Air Lines year-to-date stock performance, data by YCharts.

This swift collapse in demand is unprecedented, far outpacing what airlines experienced in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the Great Recession. Delta is acting decisively to limit the damage.

Here's how Delta is responding

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, Delta has instituted enhanced aircraft cleaning procedures. In keeping with its reputation as a customer-friendly airline, Delta has also waived change fees for all flights in March and April and for bookings made in March for future travel.

But in the short run, there's really not much airlines can do to stimulate demand. At an investor conference earlier this week, Delta said it would reduce system capacity by at least 15% in the spring. However, it quickly became clear that far more aggressive action was needed.

In a memo to employees on Friday, Delta Air Lines' CEO said that because of plunging demand, the airline will slash capacity by 40% for the next few months. That includes eliminating all flights to continental Europe -- a significant market for Delta -- for at least 30 days. In light of this sharp capacity reduction, Delta will park up to 300 aircraft, a third of its mainline fleet.

Delta also plans to reduce 2020 capex by at least $2 billion compared with its original plan to spend $4.5 billion. It will do so by deferring aircraft deliveries and delaying non-essential projects. Meanwhile, it is cutting discretionary spending, instituting a hiring freeze, and urging employees to consider taking voluntary short-term unpaid leaves. The airline is also asking employees to chip in by identifying ways to reduce spending in their departments.

Finally, Delta Air Lines is working to boost its liquidity. As of earlier this week, it expected to end the first quarter with at least $5 billion of liquidity. On Thursday, it finalized the issuance of $1 billion of secured debt (at a weighted average interest rate just above 2%), backed by 33 of its aircraft. And Delta still has close to $20 billion of unencumbered collateral -- mainly aircraft -- that it could use to issue additional secured debt as needed.

The financial impact will still be enormous

Even after taking all of these actions, Delta is still in for a lot of pain. At the investor conference last week, United's Scott Kirby said his company was planning for a worst-case scenario where revenue could decline by 70% in April and May and by 60% in June, with gradual improvement thereafter. With near-term net bookings having turned negative for Delta, that type of doomsday scenario is starting to look frighteningly realistic.

Last year, Delta Air Lines generated $12.5 billion of revenue in the second quarter. A 60% drop in revenue to $5 billion (consistent with a 65%-70% decline for the core airline business) would thus cost the airline $7.5 billion of revenue.

On the flip side, jet fuel prices have plunged by nearly $1 per gallon since the beginning of 2020. If fuel prices hold near current levels, Delta would save about $1 billion next quarter, holding capacity constant. The 40% capacity reduction could drive another $500 million of fuel cost savings, roughly speaking.

A Delta Air Lines plane taking off

Image source: Delta Air Lines.

As for nonfuel costs, Delta accrued $518 million of profit-sharing expense in Q2 2019. That will go away next quarter. Depending on how many employees take unpaid leaves and other savings that may be found, the carrier may be able to reduce its other nonfuel costs by $1 billion to $1.5 billion due to its massive capacity reductions. In total, that implies $3 billion to $3.5 billion of possible cost savings to partially offset $7.5 billion of lost revenue. That would imply a pre-tax loss of up to $2.6 billion, compared to Delta's pre-tax income of $1.9 billion in the year-ago period.

Delta will survive this downturn

Estimating the impact of this massive downturn in demand on Delta's cash flow is much harder. Typically, airlines generate a ton of cash in the second quarter from customers booking summer travel in advance. If those bookings don't come through (because the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging two or three months from now), Delta Air Lines could see a bigger hit to cash flow than the decline in its pre-tax income.

Still, between its existing liquidity and the numerous assets it can borrow against, Delta should have no trouble making it through the current crisis. Travel demand is likely to start improving within a few months, although the pace at which it will bounce back is uncertain. And if history is a guide, there could be a ton of pent-up demand hitting the market later this year or in 2021.

In short, Delta Air Lines may have to absorb some big losses this year, but it has the balance sheet strength to do so. The airline giant is likely to come back strong in 2021. With Delta shares having lost more than a third of their value just in the past month, this is a stock worth considering for risk-tolerant long-term investors.