United Airlines undeterred in August expansion by rising US coronavirus infections, EU ban

Jul 1, 2020

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United Airlines is confident in its plans to add back thousands of flights in August even as coronavirus cases continue to rise rapidly in the U.S.

The Chicago-based carrier views the uptick in infection counts as part of a “ebb and flow” in cases in various states since the pandemic began, said United vice president of domestic network planning Ankit Gupta during a media briefing on Wednesday. The airline is moving forward with plans to fly about 25,000 flights in August, including doubling the number of departures from its New York-area hub at Newark Liberty (EWR) airport compared to July.

The schedule additions also come as the EU bars most Americans from traveling to the 27-member country bloc. United plans to resume five routes to the European continent in August, all of which are to partner hubs in Brussels (BRU), Frankfurt (FRA), Munich (MUC) and Zurich (ZRH).

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“We are being extremely flexible in being able to move our capacity around,” said Gupta. However, he noted that bookings have tapered “a little bit” in the past week as U.S. COIVD-19 cases have mounted.

On Wednesday, United unveiled a robust August schedule that will see it fly roughly 40% of what it flew a year ago. This includes adding roughly 350 daily departures from the airline’s hubs compared to July, with the biggest increases at Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Denver (DEN) and Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH).

Gupta emphasized a “data-driven” approach to the schedule additions and cited the recent slow return of travelers on U.S. domestic routes.

Related: United Airlines doubles Newark flights, adds 9 long-haul international routes in August

The uptick in COVID-19 cases primarily in the south and west has raised concerns about the slow recovery of air travel. Wall Street analysts have highlighted it as a possible point of concern, including the recent decision by Connecticut, New Jersey and New York to mandate a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from states seeing rising infection numbers.

“The resurgence of COVID-19 in some areas of the U.S. adds uncertainty around potential further travel restrictions,” Goldman Sachs analyst Catherine O’Brien wrote on June 28.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian has said that the carrier may pull some of its planned 2,000 daily flights in August, particularly ones to hard-hit areas like Florida, in light of the rising case numbers.

American Airlines has yet to release a final August schedule but had planned to fly about 65% of what it flew last year in July.

Related: Air travel recovery faces new threat as coronavirus cases surge anew

Adding to the uncertainty airlines face, federal authorities have not provided guidance on how to keep travelers and crewmembers safe from the virus on flights. Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield called out American’s decision to stop blocking middle seats as “sending the wrong message” at a Senate hearing on June 30 but, as yet, his agency has also declined to provide firm safety guidelines to airlines.

Blocking middle seats is “a PR strategy, not a safety strategy,” United spokesperson Josh Earnest said Wednesday in response to Redfield’s comment.

United touts its multi-layered approach to safety as keeping flyers safe. This includes mandating that everyone wear a mask onboard, as well as new cleaning and air-filtration procedures.

Related: A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Internationally, United plans to fly just a quarter of what it flew a year ago in August. This includes resuming some routes to Europe despite the ban on U.S. travelers, as well as service to Tahiti (PPT) from San Francisco (SFO).

“When we look at the customers that are on our aircraft today, there are a disproportionate number of people with EU passports than normal,” said United vice president of international network and alliances Patrick Quayle on the affect of the border restrictions. Other markets, including to Australia and China, are also seeing high numbers of non-American flyers returning home.

Only one market in United’s updated schedule — Delhi (DEL) — cannot resume without local government sign off, he said. The airline plans to resume service to the Indian capital from both Newark and San Francisco in mid-July.

United has not said whether it will permanently drop leisure-oriented destinations in Europe as American did on Wednesday. For now, the Star Alliance member is focused on feeding the hubs of its partners Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa and Swiss, plus limited service to London and Paris.

Related: American drops 19 long-haul routes; cuts in LAX, adds in Seattle

Featured image by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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