United’s network planner reveals why he’s still bullish on summer in Europe, even as the booking window closes

May 29, 2021

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Patrick Quayle isn’t ready to give up on a European summer travel surge.

As June inches closer without a European reopening or much-rumored U.S.-U.K. corridor anywhere in sight, airline executives and analysts are largely beginning to think that it’s too late for any kind of meaningful summer travel demand, even if a full reopening took place today.

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It’s simply too late in the booking curve, the argument goes. People looking to vacation in June, July and August have mostly booked their trips already. With Europe looking uncertain at best, many would-be Europe-bound travelers have instead opted for Hawaii, Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean.

Quayle, the chief of network planning at United Airlines, concedes that it’s late in the normal booking curve, and admits that leisure demand has mostly returned to 2019 levels riding on short-haul travel.

But, he said during an interview with TPG, these are not normal times. Why should we expect the booking curve to play out the same as in other years?

People are still searching for and booking flights to recently opened European countries — Iceland, Greece, Italy, Croatia — at a high rate, he said, and data collected from the airline’s website shows users remain highly engaged searching for summer flights to Europe.

“Based on the data we’re seeing internally from United.com and our internal bookings,” he said, “there are a ton of people making net new bookings,” even as we move into the tail end of the traditional booking curve.

It’s an opinion that stands at odds with one of United’s major competitors, American Airlines.

American has committed to flying to domestic and regional destinations, such as Cancun, Mexico. During an investor call in April, and during a meeting with JP Morgan Chase executives in May, airline executives said they would rather stick with the known demand to those locations instead of risking Europe — something that they believe is too late at this point.

“So even if markets were to reopen, so much of the actual window for purchasing for the summer has actually passed us by,” American Airlines president Robert Isom said in April.

Executives at United’s other major competitor, Delta, have suggested a less bearish approach than American, but implied that they will still proceed with caution.

Delta president Glen Hauenstein, during a seminar with Wolfe Research this week, argued that the summer booking curve would actually shift later in the year, better aligning with whenever the continent reopens.

“What we think is that Europe will continue to reopen, and that will push summer Europe travel, which is usually June, July and August, more into this September, October shoulder season,” he said. “October is actually usually one of the better months to go to Europe.”

He did say, however, that the airline could add capacity by pulling grounded planes from storage.

Related: Vaccinated Americans are raring to travel, survey shows, and are booking up summer vacations

“We will reallocate airplanes or take them out of the desert and start putting them to Europe as demand climbs.”

Delta and American are also hampered by having to train pilots who were furloughed or on leave during the pandemic. United, which managed to avoid furloughs, is better prepared with crew members to assign to new routes at a virtual moment’s notice, Quayle said.

“All the pilots were kept on the property and all the pilots were kept in their positions,” he said. “So it’s just simply bringing the aircraft out of storage or taking them from a domestic rotation and putting it onto an international rotation,” he added, referring to international wide-body aircraft currently servicing domestic routes.

Then there’s the fact that United has already planned to increase service, including to already reopened countries, but also to places that haven’t reopened. For instance: London.

In late April, United chief operating officer Andrew Nocella said the airline was ready to ramp up its service to the U.K.: “We have the aircraft standing by, ready to fly this summer,” he said. “For example, we anticipate operating between eight and 10 daily flights to London Heathrow this summer, if and when a travel corridor is permitted to open.”

At the time, the airline had three daily flights to London. Quayle said that for July, it would add two more daily London flights for a total of five — even though the U.K. hasn’t actually reopened to Americans yet.

“Eight to 10 is a few more, but it’s not radically different from five in July,” Quayle said about increasing frequencies.

Related: Where you can go once you are vaccinated: A country-by-country guide

“In July, we’ll be flying 60% of our transatlantic schedule versus 2019,” he said. “A year ago if you asked me would we be doing this, I’d have said no.”

Ultimately, Quayle said, he thinks that long-haul international travel can still recover enough for the summer to be a rewarding one — as long as more destinations do, in fact, reopen.

“We think international is where it’s at and we think international has a lot of potential this summer,” Quayle told TPG.

Featured photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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