Scott Kirby, United Airlines’ CEO, isn’t offering any false hope to air travelers suffering through a summer of long, winding lines at the airport, only to encounter delayed or canceled flights.
On the one hand, speaking to CNBC just after a positive quarterly earnings report, Kirby did say “We’re glad to be returning to profitability.” And while Kirby said air travel conditions will gradually improve, he added that the change won’t come quickly.
“We’re not going to get back to normal utilization and normal staffing levels until next summer,” Kirby said.
Making Adjustments On The Fly
“The biggest challenge that faces us — probably for the next 12 months — is all the infrastructure challenges around aviation,” Kirby said. “It’s maddening to us at United right now because we were able to get ahead of the curve, and we’ve been hiring [to address the pilot shortage].”
However, Kirby went on to add, “But you look at the mess that’s happening in Heathrow or some of the other challenges we’ve had with air traffic control, or other things around the system, and the system just can’t support our flying.” In response, Kirby notes “So what we’ve done is just pull our capacity back.”
If you aren’t familiar with the situation at Heathrow Airport in London, John Holland-Kaye, CEO of the airport, recently announced “we have started to see periods when service drops to a level that is not acceptable: Long queue times, delays for passengers requiring assistance, bags not traveling with passengers or arriving late, low punctuality, and last-minute cancellations.”
As a result, the airport announced it will cap the number of daily departures at 100,000 from July 12–September 11. The move is intended “to do all we can to protect passenger’s holidays and our interventions are part of a suite of industry measures that will help consumers this summer.”
Since then, Heathrow announced the cap on flights will continue until October 29, according to The Times.
However, to be fair, Heathrow isn’t the only European airport putting a cap on daily flights. For instance, Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport recently announced it will apply to the German transport ministry for approval to reduce the number of flights per hour from 96 to 88.
What’s more, London’s Gatwick Airport announced last month that it would institute a capacity cap of 825 flights per day for July and up to 850 per day in August so passengers will “experience a more reliable and better standard of service.” Those numbers are down from approximately 950 daily flights offered before the COVID-19 pandemic.
And in Amsterdam, Schiphol Airport is limiting the number of departing passengers for July and August to minimize congestion and long lines for air travelers. That limit will vary from day to day and will increase to 67,500 in July and 72,500 in August.
There are, of course, problems at U.S. airports as well, which is why Kirby said United has reduced capacity.
For example, Newark Liberty International Airport, which is in New Jersey but also 9 miles from Manhattan, has been experiencing extremely high numbers of delays. United announced last month that it will cut flights to Newark by 12 percent — about 50 flights per day — in an attempt to reduce delays, according to the Associated Press. The airline also announced it is reducing its overall number of flights this summer, as well as suspending flights from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Denver; and ending service from Houston to Texarkana, Arkansas; according to USA Today.
“All the costs are still there because we’re prepared to be a much bigger airline — we have the people to be a much bigger airline — but we’re going to be a smaller airline ‘till the system can support it,” Kirby said.
A Look To The Holidays
Finally, if you’re planning to travel for the holidays this December, Kirby has some advice.
“Unfortunately, there still are going to be fewer seats available around the whole system, because the infrastructure around aviation can’t support it,” Kirby said. “You should probably book early for Christmas. We’re already planning to fly less so we can make sure we have reliability.”
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