United Airlines Again Scales Back Growth Plans

Chicago-based carrier is remaining cautious on capacity, citing global trends that present potential headwinds.

Credit: United Airlines

United Airlines said it will operate capacity in 2023 “no more than” 8% above 2019 levels, a significant draw down from earlier expectations of capacity growth of as much as 20% next year versus 2019.

At the start of this year, the Star Alliance member had expected to operate 5% more capacity in 2022 versus 2021—similarly, the carrier’s capacity plans for 2023 were much more aggressive at the beginning of 2021. But those plans were quickly nixed as the omicron variant of COVID-19 hit the US, and United has remained cautious about growth throughout 2022.

Now the carrier estimates it will operate 13% less capacity for the full-year 2022 compared to 2019. As recently as March, United forecast full-year 2022 capacity to be down 7% to 9% compared to 2019–the lower expectations come after months of US airlines facing serious operational issues.

United’s second-quarter capacity was down 15% versus the 2019 June quarter. Third-quarter capacity is expected to be down 11% compared to the 2019 September quarter and down 10% in the fourth quarter versus the same period in 2019.

The latest United capacity forecast came as the carrier released its second-quarter results July 20, reporting net income of $329 million, reversing a $434 million net loss in the 2021 June quarter. United is not alone in revising capacity plans. Rival Delta Air Lines said earlier this month it was lowering its capacity forecast for 2022

United CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement that the operational challenges affecting the US industry were mostly avoided by the airline in the second quarter: “United performed well and, with the exception of Newark (EWR), had operating results largely in line with 2019.”

EWR, located in New Jersey just outside of New York City, is a major hub in United’s network. 

Kirby cited “three risks that could grow over the next 6-18 months” and potentially affect United’s performance and rate of capacity growth. 

“Industry-wide operational challenges that limit the system's capacity, record fuel prices and the increasing possibility of a global recession are each real challenges that we are already addressing,” he said. “These fundamental challenges have already led to higher costs, higher fuel prices, but also higher revenue” as demand soars and tight capacity leads to higher fares. 

Third-quarter revenue of $12.1 billion was up 6% over the 2019 June quarter.