Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images
- Air passengers should expect more travel chaos this year, according to the CEO of United Airlines.
- Most airlines did not not invest during the pandemic and are now catching up to cope with demand.
- Airlines now need more pilots and aircraft compared to pre-pandemic days, the CEO said.
The CEO of United Airlines has sounded a dour warning for air travel in 2023.
He thinks passengers should expect more travel chaos this year, as airlines don’t yet have the capacity to operate all the flights they are planning.
“We believe the industry capacity aspirations for 2023 and beyond are simply unachievable,” Scott Kirby said during a fourth-quarter earnings call with analysts and the media on Wednesday, according to a transcript.
A pilot shortage, higher employee sick rates, and outdated technology at most airlines continue to weigh on airlines, he said.
Most airlines also did not invest during the COVID-19 pandemic — which devastated the industry — and are now struggling to cope with the rebound in travel after the public health crisis.
“That means the system simply can’t handle the volume today, much less the anticipated growth,” said Kirby. “There are a number of airlines who cannot fly their schedules. The customers are paying the price.”
And ramping up capacity is not the only answer. The compounding issues facing airlines mean carriers will need 10% more pilots and 5% more aircraft to reach pre-pandemic available seat miles, or ASM — a measure of an airlines revenue-generating capacity — said Kirby.
“Like it or not, that’s just the new reality and the new math for all airlines,” he said.
“We believe any airline that tries to run at the same staffing levels that it had pre-pandemic is bound to fail and likely to tip over to meltdown anytime there are weather or air traffic control stresses in the system,” he added.
Kirby did not call out any airline by name, but his sharp comments came just weeks after competitor Southwest canceled more than 16,700 flights between December 21 and 31 as the busy travel season collided with a major winter storm, an outdated scheduling system, and an unconventional flight structure.
Other airlines — including United — also canceled flights during the period.
United Airlines reported a profit of $843 million in the fourth-quarter of 2022 — that’s about 30% higher than the pre-pandemic levels seen in the similar period of 2019, thanks to robust demand for travel.
That’s even though United flew “a lot less last year than we’d have like to fly.” The airline “did it intentionally,” Kirby said. “It gave us the breathing room to make even further investments in our technology and infrastructure and to increase our staffing levels.”