United Airlines CEO warns of a smaller carrier post-coronavirus

Mar 27, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

United Airlines‘ leaders are warning that the carrier is likely to emerge smaller from the novel coronavirus pandemic than when it entered, joining Delta Air Lines executives in forecasting long-lasting cuts.

“We will continue to plan for the worst and hope for a faster recovery,” United CEO Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby said in a letter to staff on Friday. “[But] if the recovery is as slow as we fear, it means our airline and our workforce will have to be smaller than it is today.”

The Chicago-based carrier has cut capacity by more than 60% in April and is planning deeper cuts in May and June as load factors, or the percentage of occupied seats on its flights, have fallen into “the teens or single digits.”

Get Coronavirus travel updates. Stay on top of industry impacts, flight cancellations, and more.

United’s forecast echoes the one presented by Delta finance chief Paul Jacobson last week. In a webinar with employees, he said: “We’re going to be smaller coming out of this. Certainly quite a bit smaller than when we went into it.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) anticipates the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis to be longer than six months. The timeline will be drawn out based on how bad the expected economic recession is with leisure travelers coming back before more lucrative business ones.

“The challenge though is that recovery is unlikely to come very quickly,” IATA chief economist Brian Pearce said in a briefing on March 24.

Delta is the second-largest domestic carrier and United the fourth, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) data shows. Delta carried nearly 22% of the 811 million travelers that flew in the U.S. in 2019, and United carried just over 16%.

Related: United Airlines reinstates 6 long-haul routes to latest coronavirus cuts

Both Delta and United have asked staff to take voluntary unpaid leave, or even early retirement offers, to reduce staffing numbers. This comes even as Congress passed an aid package with $50 billion for airlines, including $25 billion in grants dedicated to employee compensation and benefits. The grants come with strings that bar airlines from furloughing or cutting staff pay, or ending service to any U.S. destination before Sept. 30.

But come October, a smaller United will need fewer employees as Munoz and Kirby warn. Hence the offers that aim to cut payrolls voluntarily before the aid runs out.

“This federal assistance buys us time to adapt to this new environment and assess how long it will take for our economy to begin to recover,” they said.

More: What the airline aid package means for travelers

Related: Delta to emerge a much ‘smaller’ airline from coronavirus crisis

Featured image by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images.

The All-New United Quest℠ Card

WELCOME OFFER: Up to 100,000 bonus miles


CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 3X miles on United® purchases

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80K bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 20K bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months
  • $250 Annual Fee
  • Earn 3X miles on United® purchases, 2X miles at restaurants, on select streaming services & all other travel, 1X on all other purchases
  • Earn 3X miles on United Airlines purchases
  • Earn 2X miles at restaurants and on select streaming services
  • Earn 2X miles on all other travel
  • Earn 1X mile on all other purchases
  • Each year, receive a $125 credit on United® purchases and two 5k-mile anniversary award flight credits. Terms apply.
Regular APR
16.49% to 23.49% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent, Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.