How United Air­lines is try­ing to plan around the pan­demic

Baltimore Sun - - BONUS PUZZLE PAGE - By Ni­raj Chok­shi

When the coron­avirus pan­demic wiped out travel in the spring, United Air­lines slashed its flight sched­ule, salted away air­craft in the New Mex­ico desert and parked planes at hangars around the coun­try. That was the easy part. Now, with what is nor­mally the peak sum­mer sea­son be­hind it and travel pro­ceed­ing in fits and starts, the air­line is con­tin­u­ing to fine-tune ev­ery facet of its busi­ness, from main­te­nance to flight plan­ning, as it tries to pre­dict where a wary pub­lic will fly, a chal­lenge even in the best of times.

“We can re­ally throw away the crys­tal ball, which was hazy to be­gin with,” said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice pres­i­dent for do­mes­tic net­work plan­ning.

This month, the air­line an­nounced a $1.8 bil­lion loss dur­ing the third quar­ter, with rev­enues down 78% com­pared to the same pe­riod a year ago. While United said it was ready to “turn the page” from sur­vival to re­build­ing, it said it didn’t ex­pect a re­cov­ery to be­gin in earnest un­til 2022.

Pas­sen­ger vol­umes for U.S. air­lines are down about 65%, ac­cord­ing to an in­dus­try group, and ma­jor car­ri­ers have taken on enor­mous debt as they lose bil­lions of dol­lars each month. Af­ter hopes for a sec­ond con­gres­sional res­cue pack­age faded last month, United fur­loughed more than 13,000 work­ers and Amer­i­can Air­lines fur­loughed 19,000.

But while ev­ery air­line is strug­gling, each strug­gles in its own way. United re­lies far more than its ri­vals on in­ter­na­tional travel, which is deeply de­pressed and is ex­pected to take far longer than do­mes­tic travel to bounce back. Lu­cra­tive busi­ness travel will be slow to re­turn, too, and the air­line said this week that it had amassed more than $19 bil­lion in cash and other avail­able funds to cope with the down­turn.

“We’ve got 12 to 15 months of pain, sac­ri­fice and dif­fi­culty ahead,” United’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Scott Kirby, said on an earn­ings con­fer­ence call Thurs­day. “But we have done what it takes in the ini­tial phases to have con­fi­dence — it’s re­ally about con­fi­dence — in get­ting through the cri­sis.”

In nav­i­gat­ing that path, 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 took hun­dreds of planes out of cir­cu­la­tion. Among the first to go were twin-aisle jets used for in­ter­na­tional flights, which dropped early as coun­tries closed bor­ders. Sin­gle-aisle planes — the kind used for do­mes­tic routes — fol­lowed soon af­ter.

About 150 planes were sent to long-term storage in Roswell, New Mex­ico — yes, that Roswell — where the dry con­di­tions are bet­ter suited for long-term air­craft preser­va­tion. Many oth­ers were parked at United’s hub air­ports in and near cities in­clud­ing Chicago, Wash­ing­ton and Ne­wark, New Jersey, where tech­ni­cians could more eas­ily get them back into ser­vice if needed.

Since July, United has brought back over 150 of the planes that the air­line or its re­gional car­ri­ers had grounded, it said Thurs­day. About 450 are still stashed away, but must be main­tained in a way that al­lows flex­i­bil­ity.

To get it right, Tom Doxey, United’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent for tech­ni­cal op­er­a­tions, and his team con­sult mod­els cre­ated by com­puter sci­en­tists and so­licit guid­ance from main­te­nance crews. Gen­er­ally, two con­sid­er­a­tions loom large: how soon a plane will need sub­stan­tial main­te­nance and the like­li­hood that it will be among the first to start fly­ing again.

For­tu­nately for Doxey and United, some travel trends have started to emerge. Most of the peo­ple still fly­ing are stay­ing within the coun­try, vis­it­ing friends and rel­a­tives or va­ca­tion­ing out­doors. If air­line plan­ners are right, travel to pow­dery ski slopes in the West may pick up soon, too. Those flights would put United’s sin­gle-aisle planes to use.

DANIEL SLIM/GETTY-AFP

United Air­lines posted a $1.8 bil­lion loss in the third quar­ter as rev­enues plunged sharply.

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