September 15, 2022
CEO, United Airlines
Aviation and Transportation Correspondent, CNN
The aviation industry was hit hard throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with decreased demand and staffing shortages across the entire industry leading to delayed or canceled flights. As the world begins to put traveling back on its docket, the airline industry must usher in smooth traveling experiences.
During the Global Aerospace Summit, Pete Muntean of CNN spoke with Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, about the company’s direction and initiatives. Kirby shared insights on United’s priorities and future plans in the world of post-pandemic travel.
The Aviation Industry Must Help the FAA Address Air Traffic Controller Issues
Kirby explained that one of the main issues holding airlines back today is a shortage of air traffic controllers. The summer of 2022 brought an increased number of delays and cancelations compared to the same time in 2019.
“Air traffic control is set up in a way that they're staffed … well throughout the year,” explained Kirby. “So, in September, when demand is lower, things go great because you don't have staffing shortages, but in the summer, we had shortages almost every day, and they just lead to hundreds of cancelations and delays.”
The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) reauthorization is coming up after it ends in the fiscal year of 2023. Kirby explained that the aviation industry needs to do its part to endorse changes.
“The FAA needs more funding for appropriate staffing … [and] we in aviation have to commit to helping them get that,” he said. “We need to modernize air traffic control. They’re doing it with old technology, and they’re doing it without enough staffing, and we have to fix that or nothing else is going to matter.”
Staffing Issues Extend Beyond the Airlines, Resulting in Delayed and Canceled Flights
When asked about staffing issues beyond air traffic controllers, Kirby explained that United Airlines has tried to mitigate these issues by overstaffing. Today, United has 10% more employees per block hour than before the pandemic.
Kirby said even with these extra employees on United’s roster, suppliers and other players in the aviation industry may have their own staffing issues that affect airlines’ ability to provide a smooth travel experience.
“I'm not trying to absolve ourselves of responsibility,” Kirby stressed. “[But] while United Airlines can hire enough staff, [our vendors] don't have enough staff… so we're trying to work with all of those partners and find ways that help that infrastructure.”
“If you don't have someone to fuel the airplane and … the pilots are waiting two hours for a fuel vendor to show up, and they time out for their next flight,” he added.
United Airlines Believed Travel Would Return Even as the Industry Took a Hit
When asked about United’s take on the return of travel in a post-pandemic world, Kirby stated that United Airlines was “mystified” with the thought that the industry believed travel would not return during the pandemic.
“We've always believed travel was about human nature and our desire to connect with each other,” said Kirby. “And frankly, I think one of the big losses that happened during COVID [was] the world became a more dangerous place because we weren't doing that.”
“We always thought travel was going to come back [and] it has come roaring back,” Kirby continued. “At United, we're excited because … we didn't retire airplanes like others did and, in fact, we took another 20-something wide-bodies during the pandemic.”
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