Bastian said the route "is the driving force behind our investment decision at Virgin Atlantic." American currently has 23% of the traffic on the route, while its partner British Airways has 39%. Delta has 14%, but its new partner Virgin Atlantic as 22%. "Four years ago Delta was legally restricted from serving Heathrow," Bastian reminded the conference.

Delta also sees gains coming from its investment in the Trainer oil refinery, which should produce $75 million in profit in the second quarter. Bastian called the refinery investment a "game changing innovation," but noted that "running an oil refinery, much like running an airline, is not for the faint of heart."

Additionally, Delta expects both fuel efficiency and customer satisfaction gains from its ongoing move to reduce the number of 50-seat jets in its fleet. By 2015, Delta will have the same capacity with 200 fewer aircraft. "Any way you look at it, this is a home run," Bastian said.

Asked about the impact of the US Airways/American merger, Bastian said: "We believe that mergers in this industry generally are a good thing if done well. For us, it's going to be a positive. It's just another form of continuing to maintain discipline in a business that will continue to be as competitive as ever." He hinted at a possible benefit, saying that some airline mergers have gone well, and some have not gone so well and said he does not know what impact the merger will have on American and US Airways passengers.

One other plus for Delta shareholders: Bastian said the carrier is reviewing a "return of capital to shareholders," and expects to make an announcement in the coming months. Delta suspended its dividend in 2003.

In 2012, Delta earned $1.6 billion in pretax income, followed by Southwest ( LUV) with $679 million, United ( UAL) with $599 million, US Airways with $537 million and JetBlue ( JBLU) with $209 million.

In late morning trading Friday, Delta shares were up 65 cents, or nearly 5%, to $15.47.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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