Air Travel Getting ‘Stronger and Stronger’ Despite Growing Concerns About COVID-19 Delta Variant, United CEO Says

July 22, 2021

United Airlines isn’t seeing signs that concerns about a resurgence in COVID-19 cases are slowing travel’s recovery, CEO Scott Kirby said Wednesday.

“We haven’t seen any impact at all on bookings, which continue to get stronger and stronger every week,” Kirby said during a call discussing the company’s second quarter financial results.

While an uptick in cases and the spread of the delta variant, which appears to be more contagious, could cause a “temporary pullback in the reopening,” Kirby said he considers it unlikely.

“But if something did happen, we have a history … of reacting quickly, realistically, nimbly,” he said.

Delta Air Lines also has not seen “any reduction or drop in demand” over the next two or three months, CEO Ed Bastian said during a call with analysts last week.

Stocks slumped earlier this week amid concerns over rising infections, with United, Delta and American Airlines falling more than 4% Monday. By Wednesday afternoon, shares of United and American were up more than 3% from the previous day’s close and Delta was up more than 2%.

It’s difficult to say how quickly bookings would be growing without concerns about the delta variant, but the fact that travelers are continuing to book more flights “indicates it’s not having that big of an impact,” said Adit Damodaran, an economist at travel search company Hopper.

Domestic flight bookings on Hopper are 17% higher than they were four weeks ago and international flight bookings are up 13%, he said.

As long as travelers keep booking, concerns about an uptick in cases are unlikely to affect airfares unless airlines cut flights in response to new international travel restrictions, Damodaran said.

In the meantime, United said it is preparing for travelers to continue returning to flying.

The Chicago-based carrier expects its flying capacity to be down 26% during the third quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2019 and is halting most cargo-only flights for the rest of the year as long-haul passengers return, said Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer.

While business travel is still down 60% compared with before the pandemic, 90% of business flyers the airline surveyed said they expect to get back to travel in the second half of this year, up from just 55% in an earlier survey, Nocella said.

Delta, meanwhile, said almost 95% of its corporate travel customers plan to return to offices by the end of the year. About 36% of customers expect to return to pre-pandemic business flying by next year and only 5% said they never expect to fly as much as they used to, Bastian said.

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