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United Airlines CEO: Travelers Will See More Disruptions Ahead

Scott Kirby has suggested that many airlines will not be able to fulfill their schedule in 2023 and beyond, with many overly ambitious carriers operating at 2019 levels

by Fergus Cole

January 20, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of Jason Leung / Unsplash

After a rocky start to 2023 for the aviation industry, the CEO of United Airlines, Scott Kirby, has warned travelers about further disruptions in the coming months.

The boss of the U.S. carrier has suggested many airlines are overly ambitious about how many flights they can operate this year, and that airlines running schedules on par with 2019 will inevitably struggle the most.

Kirby also claims that the industry’s current shortage of pilots and outdated technology will also play against any potential organic growth in the years to come.

Photo: Scott Kirby, United Airlines CEO. Photo: Courtesy of United Airlines

“We believe the industry capacity aspirations for 2023 and beyond are simply unachievable,” said Kirby. “The system simply can’t handle the volume today, much less anticipated growth. There are a number of airlines who cannot fly their schedules. The customers are paying the price.”

Kirby referred to the flurry of cancellations over the holiday period as an example of the disruption travelers could once again face shortly. In late December, thousands of flights across the U.S. were delayed or suspended as an extreme winter storm made its way across the country, causing chaos and ruining holiday plans for tens of thousands of Americans. Southwest Airlines was particularly affected in that situation, suspending almost 17,000 flights, but carriers such as Alaska Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and Frontier Airlines all saw massive disruption.

United’s CEO made these comments during a call with industry analysts and reporters, in which he also laid out his own airline’s plans for avoiding disruption.

Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

“What happened over the holidays wasn’t a one-time event caused by the weather, and it wasn’t just at one airline,” said Kirby.

According to him, United has been investing in new technology and keeps spare aircraft used during disruption. He also said the carrier now has more employees per flight than in 2019 and that it doesn’t have an overly crammed, unrealistic schedule, unlike some airlines.

According to the flight tracking firm FlightAware, United performed pretty well in 2022 regarding the number of flights it canceled, but it could have been better.

Data shows that United canceled two percent of its scheduled flights last year. Out of the six major U.S. airlines, only Delta performed better, canceling just 1.4 percent of its flights.

In contrast, Alaska Airlines canceled 2.4 percent, American Airlines 2.5 percent, Southwest Airlines three percent, and JetBlue—the worst-performing of the major carriers—canceled 3.1 percent of all scheduled flights last year.