United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has blamed bad weather, reduced Federal Aviation Administration staffing, and the closure of Canadian airspace for United’s recent operational woes. Now he is adding climate change (which causes thunderstorms)to the list of reasons for why your next United flight might be delayed.
United CEO Kirby Says More Flight Delays Will Be Triggered By Climate Change
Speaking to Politico, Kirby said:
“I think irregular operations events are going to be more likely to occur as the climate warms. More heat in the atmosphere: thermodynamics 101. We’re going to have more thunderstorms.”
Thunderstorms cripple operations because ground staff are not allowed outside due to potential lightning strikes.
“There’s not much you can do with the thunderstorms. You’re going to cancel a lot of flights when a thunderstorm happens. If you can’t depart the airport, you can’t depart the airport. That’s not going to change. But what you can focus on is the recovery and making sure you divert those 100 airplanes, you know where everyone is, you have a better way to contact everyone.”
Wherever the blame lies, Kirby realizes that United will have to cut back its schedules at Newark Liberty International Airport:
“We have to be more conservative in scheduling in Newark. Newark has more flights scheduled than the physical infrastructure can handle. We’ve simply passed the infrastructure. And that’s particularly true in a world in which the FAA is still working back to 100% staffing.”
United is unlikely to reduce summer schedules in advance for the remainder of summer when so many flights are full, so expect last-minute cancellations this summer followed by a more conservative schedule moving forward.
Returning to climate change, Kirby also took the opportunity to criticize the purchase of carbon offsets, which the claims most are “frankly are fraud.”
“They are either forests that were never going to be cut down or trees that were going to be planted anyway.”
He also noted that tax credits on Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) had made this technology much more palatable, though it remains “uneconomic and expensive.”
Kirby is correct that increased thunderstorms will deliver a crippling blow to operations. He’s also right that the changing climate is likely to lead to more such storms. But the key now is to plan for those in advance such that when they occur, United is not left as the only airline unable to bounce back operationally (as was true the week before last). Resiliency does not mean keeping dozens of airplanes on the ground and crews waiting idly, but deftly handling bottlenecks by reducing schedules in the first place, particularly in Newark which is already stretched beyond capacity.