United Airlines, like other air carriers, finds itself in the middle of the worst crisis in the history of aviation. But the pandemic has hit international travel much harder than domestic travel. That has created particular difficulty for United, which historically has relied far more on international longhaul traffic than its network competitors. United’s approach to international route planning in the coronavirus era is a testament to the uncharted waters aviation faces as we march toward 2021.
United Airlines International Route Planning In The Pandemic Era
When one quarter of your fleet is designed for longhaul international travel, border closures and passport restrictions heavily impact the viability of hundreds of routes. Before the pandemic, United operated 300 daily international flights. By May, that had dropped to just 11 routes. It has now climbed back over 100 and will top 150 next month, but a wide swath of longhaul routes remain dormant.
So how does one plan for international travel during at time of pandemic? Patrick Quayle, United’s Vice President of International Networks and Alliances, was quite candid in an interview with the New York Times:
“It’s a bit of playing United Nations and looking at alliances and looking at passport data, and it’s a bit of gut feeling, to be quite candid.”
Quayle is not only a great guy, he’s a smart one too. I appreciate that humility, because he has to be in one of the toughest positions in the aviation industry right now. United’s vast network to Asia has been decimated. Former bread-and-butter routes are running with abysmal load factors and near-empty forward cabins. Frankly, relying on gut feeling is not such a bad idea during this time.
In that vein, United recently announced a number of new longhaul international routes, including:
- Chicago – New Delhi
- Newark – Johannesburg
- San Francisco – Bangalore
- Washington – Accra
- Washington – Lagos
Will any of them actually be viable? At this point, a hunch may be enough.
That’s not to say United is simply throwing darts at a board. United is also tracking:
- national travel restrictions
- travel habits of dual citizens
- economic ties between countries
With travel between nations often restricted to dual citizens, gauging such patterns is smart business.
This month, route planners have had a new concern: labor costs. With payroll support for the airline industry from the CARES Act now expired, United no longer has a huge buffer of surplus flight crews on reserve and must now actively calculate labor costs into flight viability. Thankfully for United and other carriers, a booming cargo business has helped to offset decreased passenger demand.
It’s a tough time all around, but particularly tough for an airline like United that has placed so much emphasis on international travel. In times like this a little bit of gut feeling and a little bit of “playing United Nations” is probably not a bad idea.