Think of the balance sheet of Delta Air Lines as a public/private partnership. In 2020, Delta received $5.6bn from the US government, mostly in forgivable grants. These funds from the so-called pay cheque support programme went towards keeping employees on the payroll.

Separately, red-hot capital markets allowed Delta to borrow more than $20bn. Much of that was secured financing against assets such as frequent-flyer miles. On Thursday, Delta reported a 2020 loss of $12bn, the biggest in its history.

Still, the Atlanta-based company had amassed $17bn of total liquidity. Its share price has also doubled since its low last spring, with the management predicting a return to profitability later this year as it starts to recover from the pandemic’s effects.

While a return to 2019 levels of travel is years away, Delta will almost certainly avoid bankruptcy, thanks to its friends in Washington and Wall Street. The question for everyone else is why similar levers were not available across the economy.

Delta’s net debt levels stand at nearly $19bn, up $8bn from a year ago. Daily cash burn has been whittled down to just above $10m by cutting variable costs. Delta said its blended interest rate on debt was under 5 per cent. That is a remarkable figure for a travel company, even for one that has the ability to mortgage a huge physical and IP asset base.

Even with the support of the federal government paying salaries, 18,000 company employees, a fifth, have voluntarily left Delta. As part of the government support package, the Treasury received warrants for about 1 per cent of Delta shares. While those warrants are deeply in the money, it appears the Trump administration could have driven a harsher bargain.

If Washington simply sought to save jobs and keep Delta out of a messy bankruptcy those imperatives have been achieved. The government and central bank bailouts of 2020 have clearly favoured large, politically-connected enterprises. If there is a next time, any taxpayer largesse must be more broadly available.

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