Passenger Air Travel: Adapting to Meet the Changing Environment

Mar 3, 2021 | DTJ Online, GovTravels 2021 Videos, Passenger Travel

By Sharon Lo Managing Editor, Defense Transportation Journal and The Source


The COVID-19 Pandemic has created a new reality for the passenger travel industry. Chief Executive Officer of United Airlines Scott Kirby recently provided insight into how his company adapted to meet this changing environment. The comments came during his keynote speech at the 2021 GovTravels Symposium.

Co-sponsored by the National Defense Transportation Association (NDTA) and the Defense Travel Management Office (DTMO), GovTravels is an annual gathering of US Government and industry travel experts. This year’s symposium took place virtually February 23-25, 2021.

Kirby recounted that when COVID-19 arrived in Italy in late February 2020, United recognized it would be a serious worldwide event and started planning for what was to come. The company also took a leadership role early in the pandemic response, partnering with the Department of Defense (DOD) and Defense Advanced Project Research Agency (DARPA) for the most comprehensive study ever of onboard safety of airplanes, focused on the transmission of airborne infectious diseases.

The results of the study showed that airplanes were in fact safe environments due to their air circulation rates. Air in an aircraft is recirculated every 2-3 minutes using HEPA-grade filters with 50% of the air coming in in fresh from outside. In contrast, air in a building is recirculated on average every 20-30 minutes. United was also the first large brand to require masks.

Despite United’s early and active response, the extent of the pandemic has been a shock both to the company and the industry at large. In April 2020, United’s revenues were down 99%. At the time, only medical professionals headed to the COVID front lines and personal protective equipment (PPE) were flying.

“Things have recovered some, but our revenues are still down almost 70% and that’s just a cataclysmic environment financially for airlines,” said Kirby. “I appreciate the response from Washington, the bipartisan response, for the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act I and CARES Act II and now what’s going on for CARES III, ha[s] been critical to maintaining support for the parts of the economy that were devastated by Coronavirus.”

Besides aviation, he mentioned anything in travel, tourism, entertainment, leisure and restaurants as businesses that have been devastated by the COVID-19 crisis. He added that help from the government was not only important to support these groups, but provided enough time to find private funding. In the case of United, the company has raised $26 billion to fund its losses through the pandemic.

While the past year had been incredibly challenging, Kirby was optimistic about the future. “As we look forward, we have high confidence in the ultimate recovery. The key of course was getting the vaccine and then getting enough of the population vaccinated that we can get back—as Andy [NDTA President VADM (Ret.) William A. Brown] said—to living life as normal.”

“We were early on called more pessimistic or more bearish about the Coronavirus. We’ve tried from the very beginning to focus on being realistic,” said Kirby. “This was always a big issue, a big crisis that was going to take a lot to resolve. But it’s nice that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel—and whether that happens by the summer, or the fall, or even in the winter—we have high confidence that the recovery will come back and then at that point there’s huge pent-up demand for travel.”

According to Kirby those in the travel industry have an especially critical role to play in the pandemic recovery. “Please understand the importance of what you are doing. It’s not just the transactional work of getting people from point A to point B, but this really is going to be a big part of the psychological recovery for our society.”

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