Travelers Should Expect Airline Struggles for Another Year, United Airlines’ CEO Says



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Travelers shouldn’t expect to see air travel return to normal for at least a year, United Airlines’ CEO said during an interview this week.

Air travel — which has been plagued by mass cancellations and staffing issues for months with Heathrow Airport in London even asking carriers to stop selling tickets this summer in an effort to keep up — will gradually improve over the next 12 months, but won’t be back to normal until next summer, Scott Kirby, the head of United, said in an interview with CNBC.

“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 travel-news/heathrow-summer-travel-capacity-cap” data-ylk=”slk:the mess that’s happening in Heathrow” class=”link “>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.

For its part, United has joined several other airlines in preemptively slashing summer schedules, cutting dozens of flights from its Newark hub as well as canceling flights to two airports and cutting a third route this fall.

Flight delays continue to hit the airline industry, but the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration has said things are improving with the 10 major carriers in the U.S. canceling only 2% of all scheduled domestic flights in May, a decrease from the 2.3% that were canceled in April.

Since United’s cuts at Newark, Kirby said the FAA has worked with the carrier and staffing on “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 also lent some advice for those who typically travel for 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.”

Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she’s not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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