Delta Air Lines CFO Departs as Airline Industry Faces Coronavirus Impact

Paul Jacobson’s exit comes after eight years in the top finance role

Delta Air Lines finance chief Paul Jacobson is credited with playing a crucial role in strengthening the company's balance sheet.

Photo: Delta Air Lines

Paul Jacobson, the Delta Air Lines Inc. executive who helped reshape the finances of the air carrier after it emerged from bankruptcy in 2007, plans to retire, a move that comes as the airline industry faces the mounting challenge of the spreading coronavirus.

Mr. Jacobson, who joined the Atlanta-based company in 1997 and ascended to the role of chief financial officer in 2012, intends to stay with Delta as it searches for a successor, a process that could take several months, the airline said.

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28365365体育投注“He played a crucial role in Delta’s bankruptcy process and the strategy that led Delta to regain our investment-grade balance sheet,” Chief Executive Ed Bastian said in a memo sent to Delta employees on Friday. Delta declined to comment beyond the memo.

His replacement will likely have to deal with the long-term financial implications of the coronavirus outbreak, which is disrupting air travel world-wide and could become a drag on earnings and cash flow.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. this week scrapped its guidance citing the uncertainty around the coronavirus spread. Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG, meanwhile, announced a hiring freeze28365365体育投注 and cuts to projects and spending for its main Lufthansa brand.

Delta, which has about 38,000 flights a week, ceased operations in China and reduced connections to South Korea because of the outbreak, resulting in about 55 flight cancellations a week, a spokesman said.

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The airline is forecast to take a bigger financial hit should the virus spread in the U.S., which could result in additional flight cancellations and a drop in bookings, said Philip Baggaley, a managing director at S&P Global Inc.

28365365体育投注The U.S. and Canada market is by far the company’s biggest, representing 72% of Delta’s 2019 passenger revenue of about $42.3 billion, according to a filing with regulators. The Pacific region, including China, by contrast only made up about 6% of passenger revenue in 2019, Delta said.

“If the virus causes a lot of concern in the U.S. and bookings fall off, there could be significant short-term damage to earnings,” Mr. Baggaley said in an interview.

A core focus for Delta’s new CFO would be managing the company’s liquidity to compensate for a potential decline in bookings while covering fixed expenses for staff, fuel and other items, Mr. Baggaley said.

28365365体育投注Delta had $8.4 billion in operating cash flow in 2019, up from $7 billion in 2018, and expects to generate about $4 billion in free cash flow this year. That would put the airline on track to deliver a three-year cumulative free cash flow of more than $10 billion by the end of 2020, the company said in January.

“Delta has an extraordinarily strong balance sheet,” said Stephen Trent, a director at Citigroup Inc. Delta’s total debt stood at $18 billion at the end of December, compared with $33.4 billion at American Airlines Group Inc.28365365体育投注 and $20.5 billion at United, according to S&P.

Delta said this month the continued spread of the coronavirus and travel restrictions could have a significant adverse impact on demand for air travel and its financial results. Operations also could be affected should Delta employees be quarantined, the company said. The company has around 90,000 employees globally.

“Given the fluidity of the coronavirus situation, any preliminary estimates are likely suspect until there is more clarity on the path of the virus (and the corresponding impact on the global economy),” analysts at financial services firm Raymond James Financial Inc.28365365体育投注 said in a note to clients Friday.

Before the outbreak, Delta was expecting another year of growth in 2020. The airline doesn’t have any Boeing Co.28365365体育投注 737 MAX planes in its fleet, meaning it isn’t affected by the continued grounding that has impacted other airlines.

28365365体育投注Delta is expected to recruit a new CFO who would follow the company’s current financial strategy, including its focus on retaining an investment-grade rating, generating free cash flow and returning money to shareholders, Mr. Baggaley said.

Write to Nina Trentmann at Nina.Trentmann@txbbqking.com

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