United Expects Pre-Pandemic 'Structural Advantages’ To Return

The carrier noted that long-haul flying and business traffic, strengths for United, struggled during the pandemic.

Credit: United Airlines

United Airlines, which operated 81% of its 2019 capacity levels in the 2022 first quarter, offered an extremely bullish forecast for the carrier’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

United CEO Scott Kirby, speaking last week to analysts to discuss the company’s $1.4 billion first-quarter net loss, said international long-haul flying and Asian routes are traditional strengths for the airline, which he believes means United is poised for robust growth going forward as those sectors rebound. 

Kirby said Chicago-based United has “finally reached the inflection point” regarding COVID-19, leading to the strongest demand environment “I've ever seen in my career, and that's even before business travel fully recovers … and before international, especially Asia, fully recovers.”

United, he said, expects the “highest quarterly revenue in our history in 2Q despite the higher fuel prices.” 

Kirby noted that business traffic is “rapidly returning, but it's still not fully recovered, and we expect United will benefit more than any other airline as that recovery continues.” He added: “International, especially Asia, is far from fully recovered. United is just more exposed to those sectors. [Consequently], we expect to have the most acceleration [among major US airlines] in the coming quarters.”

United expects transpacific capacity to be down about 65% versus 2019 in the second quarter. By contrast, Latin American capacity is expected to be up 9% versus 2019.

“During the pandemic, we found many traditional United structural advantages, including our business-centric and long-haul network, to be temporary disadvantages,” CCO Andrew Nocella said. “United's network during the pandemic, even with all the changes we implemented, was simply less focused on domestic markets, small communities, Florida and near Latin America, which all performed better during the pandemic.”

Now, he said, “areas which have been structural advantages, including business traffic, coastal gateways and global long-haul [are poised to] fully bounce back.”

One watch item for United is regional flying, which has been hammered by a growing pilot shortage, reducing service to smaller markets in the US. “I just don't think it's mathematically possible to meet the pilot demand for the capacity plans that are out there,” Kirby said. “You can already see the issues that are occurring at multiple smaller and mid-tier airlines over the pilot shortage … That situation is only going to get worse. This is not a temporary issue.”

He added: “All of our [contracted] regionals weren't able to hire [enough pilots] and are having problems. I think we've got 150 [United regional] airplanes grounded right now. They're never going to come back, I assume.”

Kirby emphasized that United does not have a labor issue for its mainline services. “We're hiring 200 pilots a month,” he said. “That's not an issue for us.” 

United is forecasting its full-year 2022 capacity to be “down high single digits” versus 2019. At the start of 2022, the airline had anticipated operating 5% more capacity in 2022 versus 2019.