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United Airlines sees positive uptick in flight searches, but only for travel next year

May 01, 2020
4 min read
United Airlines sees positive uptick in flight searches, but only for travel next year
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United Airlines does not sugar coat pandemic reality. The travel industry has hit bottom and there are few, if any, signs that people are ready to fly again.

New bookings for the Chicago-based carrier are at "net zero" — or bookings minus cancellations — with no near-term sign of improvement, United president Scott Kirby said during a first quarter earnings call Friday. The airline has responded by slashing schedules by 90% through June.

“The real issue for us about demand is going to be that people feel safe and have some reason to travel," he said, noting that guaranteeing clean planes alone will not get people back in the air. "Disney World needs to be open… Cafes and museums in Paris need to be open before people go back, and conventions need to be open and running.”

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Few Americans are traveling. The latest Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening data shows just 154,695 people passed through airport checkpoints on April 30, just 6% of the number a year ago. The number of screenings is up slightly from a low of 87,534 on April 14.

In addition, more than 3,000 planes flown by U.S. carriers are idled having not flown during the week ending April 28, according to data from the trade organization Airlines for America (A4A).

Airlines are accelerating aircraft retirement plans to cut costs amid near-zero demand. American Airlines has removed five types from its fleet — Airbus A330-300s, Boeing 757s and 767s, Bombardier CRJ200s and Embraer E190s — and Delta Air Lines will remove its McDonnell Douglas MD-88s and MD-90s in June.

United, for its part, does not yet have plans to retire any of its more than 800 jets. To date, it has only "temporarily parked" aircraft pending a better view of the recovery before any decisions are made, the airline's chief financial officer Gerry Laderman said on Friday.

Related: Delta says goodbye to the last ‘Mad Dogs’ flying in the US amid coronavirus retirements

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United did leave analysts with at least one seed of optimism. The airline is seeing more searches on its website for travel in the spring of 2021 than it did last year for travel this spring, Kirby said.

But a 2021 recovery is a long, long way off. And next year is well after the air service and staffing protections of the government's coronavirus aid package, the CARES Act, expire on Sept. 30.

'We are planning for the environment to possibly continue at essentially net zero passenger revenues for the rest of the year and into 2021," said Kirby. "We aren’t projecting that, and certainly hope it’s better than that, but we are planning for the possibility.”

United is prepared to make difficult strategic decisions based on what it sees over the next few months. These could include involuntary furloughs or layoffs of staff, or even closing one of its eight hubs.

Related: US carriers signal slow recovery with United planning to cut June flying by 90%

The carrier reported a $1.7 billion net loss — its first since 2014 — in the first quarter. It aims to reduce its daily cash loss to $40 to $45 million by the end of June.

Cowen analyst Helane Becker said in a report Friday that United's daily loss projections are a result of the airline's quick response to the COVID-19 crisis. United was the first U.S. carrier to cut domestic capacity in early March.

Both American and Delta aim to get their daily loss, or how fast they are going through the cash in their bank accounts, to around $50 million a day by June.

Related: It may be years until passenger demand returns to 2019 levels for US airlines

Featured image by Getty Images

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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees