How United Airways Is Attempting to Plan Round a Pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic wiped out travel in the spring, United Airlines cut its flight schedule, salinated planes in the New Mexico desert and parked planes in hangars across the country.

That was the easy part.

Now that it’s usually midsummer season behind this and the journey is in seizures and beginnings, the airline continues to refine every facet of its business, from maintenance to flight planning, to predict where a careful public will fly, a challenge even in the best Times.

“We can really throw away the crystal ball that was initially blurry,” said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of domestic network planning.

According to an industry group, US airline passenger traffic has fallen by around 65 percent and major airlines have incurred huge debts as they lose billions of dollars every month. After hopes of a second Congress bailout had faded last month, United put more than 13,000 workers on leave and American Airlines 19,000.

But while every airline struggles, each struggles in its own way. United relies far more than its competitors on international travel, which is deeply depressed and is expected to take much longer than domestic travel to recover. Lucrative business travel is also only slowly returning, with the airline announcing this week that it has amassed more than $ 19 billion in cash and other available funds to help weather the downturn.

“We have 12 to 15 months of pain, sacrifice and difficulty ahead of us,” said Scott Kirby, United CEO, on a earnings conference call Thursday. “But we did everything in the early stages to have trust – it’s really about trust – to get through the crisis and to the other side.”

In navigating this route, the airline has focused on making savings and positioning itself to serve the few passengers who still want to fly. When the virus destroyed the trip in March and April, the airline took hundreds of planes out of service. The first were double-aisle jets for international flights, which fell early when countries closed their borders. This was soon followed by single-aisle aircraft, such as those used for domestic flights.

About 150 aircraft have been sent for long-term storage in Roswell, New Mexico – yes, Roswell – where the arid conditions are better suited for long-term aircraft maintenance. Many others were parked at United’s hub airports in and near cities like Chicago, Washington, and Newark, where techs could more easily get them back up and running when needed.

Since July, United has brought back more than 150 aircraft that the airline or its regional airlines had discontinued, it said on Thursday. Around 450 are still stowed away, but must be maintained in such a way that flexibility is possible.

To get it right, United’s senior vice president of engineering operations, Tom Doxey, and his team consult models created by computer scientists and seek advice from maintenance teams. In general, two considerations play a large role: how soon an aircraft will need significant maintenance and how likely it is to be among the first to fly again.

“If you have a plane that is less likely to be back soon, you want it in the back of the lot,” Doxey said. “It will be stored longer and probably in a desert location.”

As demand for domestic flights increases, United will most likely deploy single-entry Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s so many will stay ready, he said. The same applies to the Boeing 777 or 767, which can be used for international travel on every rebound. Aircraft that have recently undergone heavy maintenance will also be kept closer to hand than aircraft that may need a more thorough inspection soon.

Luckily for Mr. Doxey and United, some travel trends have emerged to make his job easier. Most of the people who still fly stay in the country, visit friends and relatives, or take an outdoor vacation. If the airline planners are right, trips to powdery ski slopes in the west may soon be the case. These flights would use United’s smaller single-aisle aircraft.

Planning routes during such lean times can be incredibly complex as airlines weigh a number of variables with limited resources. Not only do the right planes need to be in the right locations, but planners need to be sure they have the gate agents, baggage handlers, flight attendants and pilots needed for every round-trip flight while trying to avoid the unpredictable Take travel trends into account.

To predict winter demand, Mr. Gupta and his domestic planning team consulted with resort operators and staff near ski towns to determine how many flights the company should add to snowy destinations. Based on recent and historical trends, they have also added an unusual mix of direct flights to Florida from the Northeast and the Midwest this winter. On Thursday, United began offering preflight coronavirus testing to customers traveling from San Francisco to Hawaii to bypass the state’s quarantine requirements and hopefully increase sales. There are also plans to expand service to dozen of routes to tropical destinations near and within the U.S., and to resume flights on nearly 30 international routes.

With few people flying internationally, United needs fewer wide-body jets, which make up a quarter of its fleet. But it has found a use for some of those larger aircraft: as the demand for air cargo increased, United began using its larger, more fuel-efficient 787s to haul cargo.

Before the pandemic, the airline operated more than 300 daily flights overseas, but these dropped to 11 in the depths of the crisis. In the next month, the airline plans to operate more than 150 international departures a day. To understand when and how that demand might recover, Patrick Quayle, who oversees United’s international network planning, and his team track a number of indicators, including national travel restrictions, dual citizenship travel habits, and economic relationships between countries.

“It’s about playing the United Nations, looking at alliances and passport dates, and it’s a little gut feeling to be very frank,” he said.

As difficult as planning was, it will be even more difficult. The federal incentive passed in March, the CARES bill, gave passenger airlines $ 25 billion to employ tens of thousands. This made life a little easier for network planners, so they could worry less about whether a flight would cover the labor and high costs, and make last-minute changes knowing there were far more people to work Were available as required. However, aid ran out last month and the prospect of another round of funding has largely faded.

However, there can be cause for hope. The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly a million people at airport checkpoints on Sunday, the highest number since mid-March, although it was still less than 40 percent of the number checked the same day of the week last year. Whatever happens in the months ahead, Mr Doxey said United are prepared: “We have a plan.”

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