How United Airlines is trying to plan for a pandemic

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U.S. airline passenger numbers are down about 65%, according to an industry group, and major carriers have taken on huge debt, losing billions of dollars every month. After hopes of a second congressional bailout faded last month, United laid off more than 13,000 workers and American Airlines left 19,000.

But while each airline struggles, each struggles in its own way. United rely much more than their rivals on international travel, which is deeply depressed and is expected to take much longer than domestic travel to rebound. Lucrative business travel will also be slow to return, and the airline said this week it has raised more than $ 19 billion in cash and other funds available to weather the recession.

“We have 12 to 15 months of pain, sacrifice and hardship ahead,” United chief executive Scott Kirby said on a results conference call Thursday. “But we did what it took in the initial stages to have confidence – it really is about confidence – to get through the crisis and get to the other side.”

By taking this route, the airline has focused on finding savings while positioning itself to serve the few passengers who still want to fly. When the virus devastated travel in March and April, the airline pulled hundreds of planes from service. Among the first to leave were the twin-aisle jets used for international flights, which fell early when countries closed their borders. Single-aisle planes – the type used for domestic routes – followed soon after.

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