United Airlines will return Boeing 787s to LAX even as it plans for a skeletal autumn schedule

Jul 10, 2020

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United Airlines may be among the more conservative U.S. carriers, flying a greatly reduced schedule during the coronavirus pandemic, but it has not lost its competitive edge.

The Chicago-based carrier has reversed plans to close its Boeing 787 pilot base in Los Angeles (LAX) citing a “changing competitive environment,” United told pilots in a crew resources update on Friday viewed by TPG. Crews will initially staff the reinstated flight between Los Angeles and Sydney (SYD) that United begins in September.

The decision also comes just 10 days after American Airlines, the largest carrier at LAX, revealed that it will end most long-haul flying from the airport. Gone are flights to Beijing, Buenos Aires (EZE), Hong Kong (HKG), São Paulo (GRU) and Shanghai Pudong (PVG) — the last pending government approval — leaving just Auckland (AKL), London Heathrow (LHR) and Sydney to resume after the pandemic.

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United’s seemingly about face on 787s in Los Angeles is more a signal of what the new normal is at airlines: flexibility. If air travel demand does not fit the schedule? Cut flights, and not 90 days early as before the crisis but less than 30 days before departure.

The same goes to staffing. Even with warnings of possible furloughs going to some 2,500 pilots on July 8, United’s crew resources update shows it is willing to change its plans quickly and adeptly in response to the market.

United still faces a tough road ahead. The airline is among those more exposed to the slowdown in business and international travel, neither of which have returned in significant numbers. The stalling recovery has, to date, been led by U.S. domestic leisure flyers.

Related: United Airlines sees Boeing 787 as new long-haul ‘workhorse’

The return of leisure travelers first has been an outsized benefit to low-cost carriers, like Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines. American has also benefitted as the major carrier with the largest domestic schedule.

In July, American plans to fly domestically around 55% of what it flew last year, according to Cirium schedules. This compares to just 30% at United, 40% at Delta Air Lines or even 90% at Spirit.

But the crisis is getting worse again before it gets better. United CEO Scott Kirby told staff in a video message on July 8 viewed by TPG that the carrier expects its scheduled will be down roughly 60% year-over-year on Oct.1 — or about 2,000 daily flights based on its Oct. 2019 schedule.

Related: Air travel recovery will come slower than expected

 

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The outlook followed industrywide recognition that the return of travelers is stalling as COVID-19 cases rise in many parts of the country. At the same time, travel restrictions are limiting visitors in many places.

“We’ve actually seen demand go [down], and revenue remains down over 80%,” Kirby said. “What that means is our August schedule is likely going to be the peak of our schedule and we’re not going to be able to grow it in September and October.”

United has already pared its August schedule plans. The carrier will fly about 35% of what it flew a year ago during the month, rather than initial plans to fly 40%.

One notable fleet addition mentioned in the crew update: the Boeing 757 will return to United’s domestic schedule. The jets, which do not include the airline’s premium 757-200s, join Boeing 767-300ERs in the airline’s operations.

Related: United Airlines scales back August schedule on resurgent coronavirus, travel restrictions

Featured image by Alberto Riva/TPG.

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