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How United Airlines is trying to plan for a pandemic




When the coronavirus pandemic wiped out travel in the spring, United Airlines slashed its flight schedule, salted planes in the New Mexico desert, and parked planes in hangars across the country.

It was the easy part.

Now, with what is normally the peak summer season behind it and the trips floundering in spurts, the airline continues to refine every facet of its business, from maintenance to flight planning, as it attempts to predict where a suspicious audience will fly it, a challenge even at the best of times.

We can really throw in the crystal ball, which was initially blurry, said Ankit Gupta, United vice president for national network planning.

US airline passenger volumes are down around 65%, according to an industrial groupand the major carriers are in huge debt losing billions of dollars every month. After hopes of a second congressional bailout faded last month, United laid off more than 13,000 workers and American Airlines left 19,000.

But while each airline struggles, each struggles in its own way. United rely much more than their rivals on international travel, which is deeply depressed and is expected to take much longer than domestic travel to rebound. Lucrative business travel will also be slow to return, and the airline said this week it has raised more than $ 19 billion in cash and other funds available to weather the recession.

We have 12 to 15 months of pain, sacrifice and hardship ahead, United chief executive Scott Kirby said on a results conference call Thursday. But we did what was necessary in the initial stages to have confidence, it is really a matter of confidence to get through the crisis and get to the other side.

By taking this route, the airline has focused on finding savings while positioning itself to serve the few passengers who still want to fly. When the virus devastated travel in March and April, the airline pulled hundreds of planes from service. Among the first to leave were the twin-aisle jets used for international flights, which fell early when countries closed their borders. Single-aisle planes, of the type used for domestic routes, followed soon after.

About 150 planes were sent to long term storage in Roswell, NM yes, than Roswell where dry conditions are better suited for long term preservation of planes. Many more were parked at major US airports in and near cities such as Chicago, Washington, and Newark, where technicians could more easily put them back into service if needed.

Since July, United has brought back more than 150 of the planes that the airline or its regional carriers had stranded, he said Thursday. About 450 are still hidden, but need to be maintained in order to allow some flexibility.

To get it right, Tom Doxey, United’s senior vice president of technical operations, and his team look at models created by IT people and seek advice from maintenance teams. Generally, two considerations are important: the time within which an aircraft will need substantial maintenance and the likelihood that it will be among the first to resume flying.

If you’ve got an aircraft that’s maybe less likely to come back soon, you kind of want it in the back of the parking lot, Doxey said. It goes into extended storage and it probably goes to a desert location.

As demand for domestic flights increases, United will most likely use single-aisle Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s, which will keep many on hand, he said. The same goes for the Boeing 777 or 767, which can be used for international travel, whenever they bounce. Planes that have recently undergone heavy maintenance are also being kept closer than those that are expected to receive closer scrutiny soon.

Fortunately for Mr. Doxey and United, some travel trends have started to emerge which makes his job easier. Most of the people who still fly stay in the country, visit friends and relatives, or vacation away. If airline planners are correct, travel to the powder ski slopes of the West could also resume soon. These flights would allow the use of the smallest single-aisle aircraft in the United States.

Route planning in such difficult times can be incredibly complex, with airlines weighing a range of variables on limited resources. Not only must the right planes be in the right places, but planners must ensure they have the necessary boarding agents, baggage handlers, flight attendants, and pilots for each outbound and return flight, while trying to adapt to erratic travel trends.

To predict winter demand, Gupta and his national planning team consulted with resort operators and staff near ski towns to estimate how many flights the company should add to snow-covered destinations. Based on recent and historical trends, they’ve also added an unusual mix of direct flights to Florida this winter from the Northeast and Midwest. United on Thursday began offering pre-flight coronavirus testing to customers traveling from San Francisco to Hawaii to help them avoid state quarantine requirements and hopefully increase sales. It also plans to expand service on dozens of routes to tropical destinations near and within the United States and resume flights on nearly 30 international routes.

However, with few passengers traveling overseas, United has less need of its jumbo jets, which make up a quarter of its fleet. But it has found use for some of those bigger planes: When demand for air freight increased, United put their bigger, fuel-efficient 787s to carry cargo.

Before the pandemic, the airline made more than 300 daily flights abroad, but that number fell to 11 during the depths of the crisis. Next month, the airline plans to operate more than 150 international departures each day. To understand when and how that demand might pick up, Patrick Quayle, who oversees international network planning for United, and his team track a range of metrics, including domestic travel restrictions, dual citizen travel habits and economic links between countries.

It’s kind of playing at the United Nations and looking at alliances and looking at passport data, and it’s a bit instinctive, to be completely frank, he said.

As difficult as planning has been, it is getting even more so. The federal stimulus passed in March, the CARES Act, gave passenger airlines $ 25 billion to help keep tens of thousands of jobs. It also made life a little easier for network planners, allowing them to worry less about whether a flight would cover labor costs, a major expense, and freeing them up to make last-minute changes. minute knowing that there were many more employees available for work than needed. Aid expired last month, however, and prospects for another round of funding have largely dimmed.

There may be reasons for hope, however. The Transportation Security Administration screened nearly a million people at airport checkpoints on Sunday, the highest number since mid-March, though still less than 40% of the number checked the same day of the week last year. Whatever happens in the coming months, Mr Doxey said, United are ready: we have a plan in place.

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