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United Airlines Execs Talk Recovery

Carrier is in a better cash position than the rest of the industry and is spending on product initiatives

October 21, 2020

According to executives on United Airlines’ third-quarter earnings call, the airline has shifted its focus from survival to recovery. “We can see the recovery on the horizon and our attention can now be firmly focused there,” CEO Scott Kirby said, calling it “the end of the beginning” of the effort to rebound from the COVID-19 crisis.

The comments reflect a consistent theme for the airline since the early days of the pandemic; despite downsizing in the midst of the downturn, the goal was to remain viable and responsive to the marketplace, eventually returning to profitability. As a result, the carrier has carefully returned routes to service and launched a number of industry initiatives, such as pre-flight testing, to restart travel demand.

Nevertheless, the airline still reported net losses of $1.84 billion during the quarter. Andrew Nocella, chief commercial officer, said demand – which has dropped to about two-thirds from its 2019 levels – is likely to plateau at 50 percent of last year until a vaccine is widely available. As a result, United plans to continue flying just 45 percent of its 2019 capacity into early next year.

On the positive front, Kirby said the company believes it has maintained the lowest cash burn in the industry throughout the crisis and expects to be the first to return to cash positive. He also said United has begun spending on initiatives that will help build business, like resuming the retrofitting of Boeing 787 interiors with Polaris business class and premium economy cabins.