United Airlines paints picture of scarce demand, shrinking airline

In ‘candid’ message, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby warn of significant demand suppression into 2021.

United Airlines believes passenger demand will likely remain suppressed into 2021 and cautions a return to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels of flying is unrealistic for the foreseeable future.

In a message to employees, United CEO Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby described the staggering drop in demand the Chicago-based airline has experienced.

“To help you understand how few people are flying in this environment, less than 200,000 people flew with us during the first two weeks of April this year, compared to more than 6 million during the same time in 2019, a 97% drop,” the executives said. “And we expect to fly fewer people during the entire month of May than we did on a single day in May 2019.”

Munoz and Kirby cautioned that the return of traffic is expected to be slow, writing: “The historically severe economic impact of this crisis means even when travel demand starts to inch back, it likely will not bounce back quickly.

“We believe that the health concerns about COVID-19 are likely to linger which means even when social distancing measures are relaxed, and businesses and schools start to reopen, life won't necessarily return to normal. For example, not all states and cities are expected to re-open at the same time. Some international travel restrictions will remain in place. Meeting planners and tour operators will do their best to accommodate people looking to avoid large crowds. So, while we have not yet finalized changes to our schedule for July and August, we expect demand to remain suppressed for the remainder of 2020 and likely into next year.”

While US government assistance will enable the airline to avoid furloughs though Sept. 30, Munoz and Kirby said “some tough decisions” lie ahead beyond Oct. 1. The airline post-Oct. 1 is expected “to be smaller than it is today,” the executives said, though they declined to get into specifics of the scope in the reduction of the airline’s size.

Munoz and Kirby said they were sending the message to employees to be “candid and upfront with you …  We promise to continue to stay in close touch—and will continue to be as transparent as possible—in the weeks and months ahead.”

Photo credit: Nigel Howarth/Aviation Week