When the coronavirus pandemic destroyed travel in the spring, United Airlines reduced its flight schedule, salted planes in the New Mexico desert, and parked planes in hangars around the country.
That was the easy part.
Now, with what is usually the peak summer season behind it and travel continues appropriately, the airline continues to refine every aspect of its business, from maintenance to flight planning, as it tries to predict where the attentive public will fly, a challenge even in the best of times.
“We can really throw away the crystal ball, which was foggy at first,”
Passenger volume for US airlines is declining by about 65 percent, according to an industry group, and large carriers are incurring huge debt as they lose billions of dollars each month. After hopes of a second congressional bailout faded last month, United took more than 13,000 workers and American Airlines 19,000.
But while each airline fights, each fights in its own way. United rely much more than their competitors on international travel, which is deeply depressed and is expected to take much longer than domestic travel to bounce back. Profitable business travel will also return slowly, and the airline said this week it has amassed more than $ 19 billion in cash and other available funds to deal with the downturn.
“We have 12 to 15 months of pain, casualties and hardship ahead,” United CEO Scott Kirby said during a revenue conference on Thursday. “But we did everything necessary in the initial stages to have confidence – in fact, confidence – in going through the crisis and to the other side.”
In navigating this route, 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 pulled hundreds of planes out of circulation. Among the first to leave were double planes used for international flights, which crashed early when the countries closed their borders. Single-wheeled aircraft – the type used for domestic routes – followed soon after.
About 150 planes were sent for long-term storage in Roswell, New Mexico – yes, this Roswell – where dry conditions are more suitable for long-term preservation of aircraft. Many others were parked at downtown United airports in and near cities, including Chicago, Washington and Newark, where technicians could more easily put them back into operation if needed.
United have returned more than 150 planes grounded by the airline or its regional carriers since July, it said on Thursday. About 450 are still hidden, but need to be maintained in a way that allows flexibility.
To understand this correctly, Tom Doxy, United’s senior vice president of technical operations, and his team are consulting with models created by computer scientists and seeking guidance from maintenance teams. In general, two considerations emerge: how soon the aircraft will need significant maintenance and the likelihood that it will be among the first to start flying again.
“If you have a plane that may be less likely to return soon, you kind of want it in the back of the parking lot,” Mr. Doxy said. “It is stored for a long time and probably goes to the desert.”
As demand for domestic flights grows, United are likely to use one-way Airbus A320 or Boeing 737s, so it keeps many on alert, he said. The same goes for the Boeing 777 or 767, which can be used for international travel when they bounce. Aircraft that have recently undergone intensive maintenance are also being kept closer than those that may soon need to be inspected in more depth.
Fortunately for Mr. Doxy and United, some travel trends have begun to emerge, making his job easier. Most people who are still flying stay in the country, visiting friends and relatives or relaxing outdoors. If airlines are right, trips to the dusty ski slopes of the West may also begin soon. These flights would use United’s smaller aircraft.
Planning routes in such lean times can be incredibly complex, with airlines weighing a number of variables with limited resources. Not only do the right planes need to be in the right places, but planners need to make sure they have the gate agents, baggage handlers, flight attendants and pilots needed for each flight – take-off and return – and all this while try to respond to volatile travel trends.
To predict winter demand, Mr. Gupta and his internal planning team consulted with resort operators and employees near ski resorts to estimate how many flights the company should add to snow destinations. Based on recent and historical trends, they have also added an unusual combination of direct flights to Florida this winter from the Northeast and Midwest. On Thursday, United began offering pre-trial tests for coronavirus to customers traveling from San Francisco to Hawaii to help them avoid the state’s quarantine requirements and hopefully increase sales. It also plans to expand service on dozens of routes to tropical destinations near and within the United States and to resume flights on nearly 30 international routes.
With few people flying internationally, however, United has less need for its wide-body aircraft, which make up a quarter of its fleet. But it found application for some of these larger aircraft: As demand for air cargo grew, United launched its larger, more economical 787s to carry goods.
Prior to the pandemic, the airline operated more than 300 daily flights abroad, but that number dropped to 11 during the depth of the crisis. Next month, the airline plans to operate more than 150 international flights each day. To understand when and how this demand could recover, Patrick Quayle, who oversees United’s international network planning, and his team tracked a number of indicators, including national travel restrictions, dual-citizen travel habits and economic ties between countries.
“It’s a little bit of playing the United Nations, looking at alliances and looking at passport data, and it’s a little bit of a feeling that I’m being quite honest,” he said.
As difficult as planning is, it becomes even more difficult. The federal stimulus, passed in March, the CARES Act, gave passenger airlines $ 25 billion to keep tens of thousands employed. It also made life easier for network planners by allowing them to worry less about whether the flight would cover labor costs, high costs and free them to make last-minute changes, knowing that there are many more employees available for work than necessary. The aid expired last month and the prospects for a new round of funding have largely faded.
There may be some reason for hope, however. On Sunday, the Transport Security Administration checked nearly one million people at airports, the largest number since mid-March, although it was still less than 40 percent of the number checked on the same weekday last year. Whatever happens in the coming months, Mr Doxy said, United are prepared: “We have a plan.”