United CEO: Air travel system is ‘stressed to the max’
If airlines are to avoid repeats of recent service problems, they’ll need to have a lot more back-up in place, according to United CEO Scott Kirby.
“You can’t run an airline like it’s 2019, and the reason is because the system is just stressed to the max,” Kirby told CNN’s Christine Romans in an interview this week. “There’s strains everywhere, whether it’s in security or FAA staffing or systems. Across the board there are strains in the system, aircraft manufacturers delivering, having enough pilots and all of those stresses and strains means that the system is tighter.”
“And when something happens, the straws are much more likely to break the camel’s back. And you’ve seen it over and over again,” he said. “It just doesn’t take much to break the back of the system.”
The challenges facing the industry were underscored again Wednesday when bad weather forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights, with Southwest Airlines hit particularly hard. A winter storm battered cities such as Chicago, Indianapolis and Cleveland, where Southwest has a strong presence.
Kirby said the only solution is for airlines to run with more back-up planes and more back-up staff in place than they had ever done in days before the pandemic.
“We’re running with about 10% more pilots per block hour [of operation] than we did pre-pandemic. You know, we have 25% more spare airplanes, and really across the board, we’re just having more buffer and more resources that gives us the ability to firewall when something happens,” he said.
That can be more expensive for airlines. But the strong rebound in travel demand, combined with the still-tight availability of seating, means that fares are higher than they were even before the pandemic.
Kirby insisted there are still bargains to be found. “You could still often pay less for your airfare than the Uber to get you to the airport costs,” he said.
But United’s own financial results released last week show the amount being paid by United passengers for every mile flown was up 21% in the fourth quarter compared to the same period of 2019, right before the pandemic.
United and all the airlines are scrambling to increase capacity — and staffing.
United placed two major aircraft orders in the last two years. One — in June 2021 — was the largest in the airline’s history. That order was for 200 Boeing 737 Max jets along with 70 Airbus A321neo planes. The other in December was for at least 100 more 737 Max jets and 100 787 Dreamliners.
And to remedy its pilot crunch, United has become the first US airline to open its own pilot training school, the Aviate academy.
“It’s a great opportunity to train the next generation,” Kirby said. “There’s just been big barriers to entry. [We’re] able to give them access even if they don’t have the financial means on their own.”
Seventy percent of Aviate’s first graduating class were women or people of color.
“Today, at United 19% of our pilots are women or people of color. And I think we’re the highest of any airline in the country,” Kirby said.
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