United Airlines has not been shy about the fact that it expects to be a much smaller airline this Fall. Company President and CEO-to-be Scott Kirby has been blunt with bearish comments about the industry but also with the observations that United will shrink as appropriate to survive as a company. That will mean fewer aircraft flying and fewer crew to operate them.
But while competitors are explicitly calling out aircraft types to retire United is avoiding such declarations, at least so far. Still, the carrier must coordinate with its pilot union on staffing levels and from those communications we can extract some ideas around what’s next for the company.
“No sacred cows”
With the network running at roughly 15-20% of previous levels it is nearly impossible to use current operations to forecast the future. Still, the company is planning what will come, including which destinations will be trimmed and how the airline will restructure to ensure that necessary coverage. And for United everything is on the table. In the company’s quarterly earnings call last week Kirby did not mince words on this topic:
We say to each other every day on our daily executive team call, that everything is on the table, about what we look like… But every single thing is on the table. And while we don’t have any plans to close hubs, when you say everything is on the table, we mean everything. There are no sacred cows.
What that means for the fleet and pilots will vary by type, but we now know what the short and mid-term focus will be.
787s the new “workhorse” for United
To serve that new (or not) route structure the airline will refocus its fleet on the right sized planes for demand levels and, wherever possible, higher efficiency operations. To that end the 787 Dreamliner is expected to be the “workhorse of our international operation for the foreseeable future,” according to a memo sent to pilots regarding staffing displacements by Bryan Quigley, SVP Flight Operations. With three sizes to choose from and more efficient engines, the 787s allow the carrier to flex up or down on capacity and range for many markets.
One market that will lose the type, however is LAX. Quigley’s memo notes “the aircraft will not be flying out of LAX for some time, possibly over a year.” LAX is a weak hub for all the major carriers, with significant domestic and international competition. It has varied in significance for United over the years and now appears poised to downsize somewhat significantly, though that could always rebound. Still, with Kirby’s comment about “no sacred cows” in the network structure and this cut of international services LAX has to be under the microscope in terms of whether it will regain its long-haul operations or not.
From a staffing perspective the 787 moves mean the LAX base will effectively be closed, displacing more than 250 pilots. Nearly 300 other 787 pilots across six other bases will also be displaced.
Just how important is the 787 for United’s future? Even in the midst of this downturn the carrier recently exercised options on seven more of the 787-10 for delivery in 2021:
777’s role reduced
Just as the 787s increase in long-haul utility for United the 777s will see flying “suppressed for the foreseeable future,” though not fully suspended. The operations will be consolidated to San Francisco and Newark, with bases at Houston, Chicago and Washington, DC closing. Quigley’s memo notes that the Houston and DC domiciles “are expected to return at some time in the future” while Chicago is not expected to see such a return.
Chicago was already seeing the 777s moved out, with the 787s and 767-300s the focus of long-haul operations for that hub. Under the new plans some of that will accelerate.
The base closures affect 276 pilots in Washington, DC, 263 in Houston, and 134 in Chicago. Another 187 in Newark and 316 in San Francisco are also affected as volumes will drop in those hubs even where the type is still flying.
Smaller long-haul operations
The 757 and 767 fleets share a type rating, with a single set of pilots staffing these aircraft. United expects that, for the foreseeable future, the 767-300 will be the only sub-fleet flying. Similar to the 787 plan this gives the company some flexibility in capacity, with two different on-board configurations offering higher total passenger count or a more premium-heavy experience, depending on market demand. This also means the 767-400, 757-200 and 757-300 are not expected to fly again anytime soon. And while United did not formally announce any fleet type retirements it is entirely possible that some of these aircraft never fly again.
With the 756 fleet moves pilot bases will close at Washington, DC (260 pilots affected), Denver (90), Los Angeles (166), and San Francisco (299). Newark (616), Houston (124) and Chicago (211) will remain active, but with staffing reduced.
Short-haul status quo
Both the 737 and A320 family aircraft will remain in service running their current missions. But the total operations will see significant volume reductions. The impact will be felt across the company, with more than 1,000 pilots displaced this summer across all domiciles.
For now these moves are just displacements. The CARES Act Payroll Support Program helps cover the expenses to keep those staff on board through September, even if they’re not flying. Come 1 October, however, it is very likely that many of these displaced pilots will become furloughed pilots as the demand does not appear poised for a rebound any time soon.