United Airlines CEO Warns Travelers More Disruptions Ahead

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The United Airlines CEO said Wednesday that other airlines will not be able to handle all the flights they plan to operate this year, leading to further disruption for travelers.

Scott Kirby said airlines that operate like it's still 2019, before the pandemic, are bound to have trouble. He said the industry is dealing with a shortage of pilots and other workers, outdated technology and pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the nation's airspace.

“The system simply can't handle the current volume, let alone the anticipated growth,” Kirby said. “There are a number of airlines that cannot fly their schedules. Customers are paying the price."

As an example of what can go wrong, Kirby cited the massive cancellations at the end of December. Southwest Airlines, which Kirby did not mention by name, cut nearly 17,000 flights in late December after a winter storm disrupted the schedule and overwhelmed the airline's crew scheduling system.

“What happened over the holidays was not a single event caused by the weather, and it was not just on one airline,” he said. Alaska, Spirit and Frontier also had double-digit canceled flight rates at the end of December.

Kirby made the comments during a call with analysts and reporters that was billed as a discussion of his company's fourth-quarter financial results. He took a contrary tone. Most airline executives rarely publicly criticize their competitors. And they're unfailingly optimistic, often treating massive flight disruptions and other mishaps as freak events caused by Mother Nature or some other factor beyond their control.

Unsurprisingly, Kirby said United are taking a different approach. He said he has invested in technology, has more employees per flight than before the pandemic, keeps more spare planes and is not pushing the schedule too hard. However, those steps have raised United's cost to fly a mile, not counting fuel, about 15% above 2019 levels.

United's no-flight rate last year was slightly better than most of its rivals, but not the best. Among the six largest US airlines, Delta canceled 1.4% of its scheduled flights in 2022, while United was down 2.0%, Alaska 2.4%, American 2.5%, Southwest 3.0% and JetBlue 3.1%, according to the FlightAware tracking service.

All those airlines faced another hurdle last week. More than 1,300 US flights were canceled and 11,000 delayed in a single day after an FAA system that alerts pilots to safety issues went down, temporarily halting all takeoffs.

Like Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian and American Airlines CEO Robert Isom, Kirby defended the FAA but said Congress doesn't give the agency enough money to keep up with its growing workload, which now includes monitoring drones and rocket launches and increasing their scrutiny. of operators after two Boeing 737 Max tragedies in 2018 and 2019.

After the stock market closed Tuesday, Chicago-based United, reported a profit of $843 million for the fourth quarter and predicted that 2023 earnings will easily beat Wall Street forecasts. Still, shares of United Airlines Holdings Group Inc. lost 4.6% on Wednesday, while most of its rivals fell by smaller amounts and Delta posted a narrow gain.

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