I had the chance to meet the charismatic United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby on the sidelines of the IATA AGM in Boston, to talk about United's global network during the pandemic.

“Our operations to Latin America are 100% recovered, also to Europe by next year we are 100% recovered. Besides that, United has grown Africa and India and we are already larger then before. Europe should recover to pre-crisis levels in 2022. Current bookings to and from Europe are already higher compared to 2019, there is a lot of pent-up demand," Kirby said.

"My guess is that next summer will be the busiest over the Atlantic ever. There is a huge desire to travel."

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby

Kirby said that he expects that the international markets in Asia will recover to pre-pandemic levels of activity by 2023, slower than other regions but still ahead of some industry forecasts.

United's Asia-Pacific network will take longer to recover, but Kirby predicted it will be completely back online sometime in 2023. “I hope it’s earlier but that’s what we’re planning for.” Asia is the one region which is just a fraction of what it was and United operations will be mostly cargo revenue-driven operations, as passenger revenue is down about 85% from 2019 levels.

Moving TransPacific Fleet to Transatlantic

Kirby told me that the dedicated 50-60 wide-body aircraft, which United operates on Transpacific routes, will be redeployed. “We are by far the largest US airline to Asia. Now we re-deploy many of these Pacific fleet aircraft to Europe as well domestically, as well as on newly added flights to Africa, India and the Middle East.“

“I believe Asia will be slower to reach as vaccination rates are different. Most importantly there is a zero-tolerance policy."

“The case rates are similar to Europe and the US, but the zero-tolerance policies in place everywhere in Asia make it much harder to get open. It is so different.”

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby

"A good sign for United’s Asian business is how quickly demand has rebounded in other international markets, once government restrictions have been lifted. This is my guess, excluding Asia“ Kirby explained why some business travel to Asia may take longer.

United B787-8
United B787-8

Views on Return of Corporate Travel

He added that there will probably be “an inflection point” sometime in January, before corporate travel springs back in earnest in North America.

Kirby pushed back against suggestions that business travel may be structurally weaker in the future, being replaced by video-conference technology adopted during the pandemic.

“Business travel is about relationships, it’s not about transactions. I think Zoom is going to replace some telephone calls and conference calls, but it’s not going to replace the human interactions where we actually get to know each other. You can’t do that over Zoom.”

The PW 777-200 Engine Issue

I was asking Kirby regarding their fleet of 52 Pratt & Whitney-powered Boeing 777-200s, when these aircraft may return to service after the FAA grounded them in February. “This is a really big deal. I have insight on that, but not a go ahead from the FAA,“ he told me.

United has grounded 52 Pratt & Whitney-powered Boeing 777-200s.
United has grounded 52 Pratt & Whitney-powered Boeing 777-200s.

He added that the good thing is that United is working with Boeing and Pratt to develop new methods for inspecting the type’s hollow fan blades.

“The FAA has developed new technology for inspecting these blades, that is an order of magnitude better than anything that ever existed before. It’s just a phenomenal improvement in safety and the ability to test the blade for any cracks internally. When these planes ultimately do return, they’re going to be really safe.”

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby

Changing United’s Culture

Kirby said the current crisis in global aviation is a phenomenal opportunity for United to change their culture.

“I told the board two weeks ago, my job is really very simple. My job is to make employees and our customers proud. Because if our customers are proud, they like to fly on United. And if our employees are proud, then they want our customers to be proud and they do the right thing for the customer. It is really all about changing the customer experience at United,“ he added.

“We talk about customers all the time. Historically, I think we didn’t do this nearly enough; but it feels different now, employees want to do the right thing. It is about changing the culture,“ Kirby added.