Delta Air Lines and Delta COVID-19 variant: Airline's issue with virus naming system

It's a problem that's been faced by dozens of companies over the years, through no fault of their own - what happens when your brand name becomes associated with something bad?

In the middle of last decade, dozens of companies around the world with the name "Isis" found themselves tarnished by the same name being used by an Islamist terrorist group - many resorted to changing their names.

Last year, Mexican beer Corona fell victim to a misinformation campaign spread on social media that associated the brand with the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak (it didn't hurt, in the end - sales actually increased).

Now, the world's biggest airline by revenue, America's Delta Air Lines is facing a similar problem - the new, highly contagious strain of COVID-19 that has been labelled "Delta" by the World Health Organisation. It's the same variant that NSW and Victoria are currently trying to contain through lockdowns.

"We just call it the variant," Delta CEO Ed Bastian told the Wall Street Journal last week.

The airline, which is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, in America's south, is named after the Mississippi Delta region, where the airline started out as a crop dusting business.

The WHO announced the new naming convention for variants of COVID-19 in May, using letters of the Greek alphabet.

"These labels were chosen after wide consultation and a review of many potential naming systems. WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities," the WHO said in a statement.

"Scientific names can be difficult to say and recall, and are prone to misreporting. As a result, people often resort to calling variants by the places where they are detected, which is stigmatising and discriminatory," the statement said, perhaps forgetting that the names might stigmatise companies like Delta Air Lines.

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While the name has brought amusement to Delta's rivals, senior staff at the company have also managed to have a sense of humour about it.

The airline's chief health officer, Dr. Henry Ting, tweeted last month: "We prefer to call it the B.1.617.2 variant since that is so much more simple to say and remember".

It doesn't seem to have hurt the airline thus far. Delta last week reported its first quarterly profit since the pandemic devastated the airline industry more than a year ago.

The airline said Wednesday it earned $US652 million ($A882 million) in the most recent quarter, but without $US1.5 billion in pandemic relief from the US federal government and other one-time events, the Atlanta airline would have posted an adjusted loss of $678 million.

"We still have a long ways to go," CEO Ed Bastian said in an interview, "but the business is in a much, much better place than it was 90 days ago. We posted a solid profit in the month of June, and it augurs well for where we're going this summer."

Bastian predicted that the airline — which lost more than $US12 billion last year — will be profitable in both the third and fourth quarters without federal aid.

Delta was the most profitable US airline going into the pandemic, and it is likely to emerge from virus outbreak at or near the front of the pack.

Delta said that domestic leisure travel has fully recovered. More than 2 million people a day on average are streaming through US airports, according to figures from the Transportation Security Administration.

Bastian cited COVID-19 variants as the biggest threat to the budding travel recovery. Fear around the variants is delaying the reopening of international borders but is having no effect on domestic bookings, Bastian said — even as US virus cases have doubled over the past three weeks.

with AP

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