How United Airlines Is Trying to Plan Around a Pandemic


When the coronavirus pandemic wiped out travel in the spring, United Airlines slashed its flight schedule, salted away aircraft in the New Mexico desert and parked planes at hangars around the country.

That was the easy part.

Now, with what is normally the peak summer season behind it and travel proceeding in fits and starts, the airline is continuing to fine-tune every facet of its business, from maintenance to flight planning, as it tries to predict where a wary public will fly, a challenge even in the best of times.

“We can really throw away the crystal ball, which was hazy to begin with,” said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president for domestic network planning.

Passenger volumes for U.S. airlines are down about 65 percent, according to an industry group, and major carriers have taken on enormous debt as they lose billions of dollars each month. After hopes for a second congressional rescue package faded last month, United furloughed more than 13,000 workers and American Airlines furloughed 19,000.

But while every airline is struggling, each struggles in its own way. United relies far more than its rivals on international travel, which is deeply depressed and is expected to take far longer than domestic travel to bounce back. Lucrative business travel will be slow to return, too, and the airline said this week that it had amassed more than $19 billion in cash and other available funds to cope with the downturn.

“We’ve got 12 to 15 months of pain, sacrifice and difficulty ahead,” United’s chief executive, Scott Kirby, said on an earnings conference call on Thursday. “But we have done what it takes in the initial phases to have confidence — it’s really about confidence — in getting through the crisis and to the other side.”

In navigating that path, the airline has focused on finding savings while positioning itself to serve the few passengers who still want to fly. When the virus devastated travel in March and April, the airline took hundreds of planes out of circulation. Among the first to go were twin-aisle jets used for international flights, which dropped early as countries closed borders. Single-aisle planes — the kind used for domestic routes — followed soon after.

As demand for domestic flights picks up, United will most likely put single-aisle Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s to use, so it keeps many at the ready, he said. The same goes for the Boeing 777s or 767s, which can be used for international travel, whenever it rebounds. Planes that recently underwent intensive maintenance are kept closer at hand, too, than those that may soon be due for a deeper examination.

Fortunately for Mr. Doxey and United, some travel trends have started to emerge, making his job easier. Most of the people still flying are staying within the country, visiting friends and relatives or vacationing outdoors. If airline planners are right, travel to powdery ski slopes in the West may pick up soon, too. Those flights would put United’s smaller single-aisle planes to use.

Planning routes in such lean times can be incredibly complex, with airlines weighing a range of variables on limited resources. Not only do the right planes need to be in the right places, but planners must be sure that they have the gate agents, baggage handlers, flight attendants and pilots needed for each flight — out and back — all while trying to accommodate erratic travel trends.

To predict winter demand, Mr. Gupta and his domestic planning team consulted with resort operators and staff members near ski towns to gauge how many flights the company should add to snowy destinations. Based on recent and historical trends, they also added an unusual mix of direct flights to Florida this winter from the Northeast and the Midwest. On Thursday, United began offering preflight coronavirus tests to customers headed from San Francisco to Hawaii to help them avoid the state’s quarantine requirements and hopefully increase sales. It is also planning to expand service on dozens of routes to tropical destinations near and within the United States and resuming flights on nearly 30 international routes.



Sahred From Source link Travel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *