How United Airlines Is Trying to Plan Around a Pandemic

The airline has to figure out which planes to stash in the desert and which ones to park at airports without knowing when demand will recover.

A United Airlines plane undergoes inspection at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago before it is cleared for flight. The airline is trying to predict where travelers will fly, a challenge in the best of times.Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times

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By Niraj Chokshi

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.

This week, the airline announced a $1.8 billion loss during the third quarter, with revenues down 78 percent compared to the same period a year ago. While United said it was ready to “turn the page” from survival to rebuilding, it said it didn’t expect a recovery to begin in earnest until 2022.

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.

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