Travelers Should Expect Airport Chaos for Another Year, United Airlines’ CEO Says

Travelers Should Expect Airport Chaos for Another Year, United Airlines' CEO Says

In an interview this week, the CEO of United Airlines warned that travelers should expect air travel to return to normal in no less than a year.

According to United CEO Scott Kirby, air traffic will gradually improve over the next year, but will not return to normal until next summer.

“The biggest challenge that faces us probably for the next 12 months is all the infrastructure challenges around aviation. It’s maddening to us at United right now because… we got ahead of the curve, we’ve been hiring,” Kirby said. 

“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… So what we’ve done is just pull our capacity back.

“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,” he said.

When pent-up demand for travel following COVID-19 roared back last year and this year, airlines were almost caught off guard. 

To meet the demand for air travel, airlines simply did not have enough pilots, baggage handlers or even call center agents. Due to the surge in travelers, many airlines had to change their schedules, cancel some flights to smaller cities and reduce staff.

United, on the other hand, has joined a number of other airlines that have reduced their summer flights as a precaution. Dozens of flights from United’s Newark hub have been canceled, as have flights to two other destinations and a third route in the fall.

Kirby said the FAA has been working with the airline since United’s cuts at Newark, and staffing at “the air traffic control desk [is] better.”

“So we’re seeing progress across parts of the system,” he said. “Our base assumption is though that it’s going to gradually get better and we’re not going to get back to normal utilization and normal staffing levels until next summer.”

Looking even further ahead, Kirby has some suggestions for people who travel frequently over the winter holidays.

“Unfortunately, there still are going to be fewer seats available around the whole system, because the infrastructure around aviation can’t support it,” he said. “You should probably book early for Christmas…we’re going to fly less so we can make sure we have reliability.”