Ground controls: United Airlines is first major airline to cut U.S. domestic flights during coronavirus scare

March 6, 2020

As a growing number of U.S. businesses, schools, and event sponsors scale back , cancel, or pull back on participation in large-scale assemblages with a wary eye on the coronavirus outbreak, United Airlines has become the first major U.S. air carrier to make broad cuts to both domestic and international flights, The Chicago Tribune reports.

Several airlines already had canceled flights to China, where COVID-19 first emerged; as well as to a handful of other destinations affected by the outbreak.

But the virus, which has killed about a dozen people in the United States to date, with numbers rising daily (and about 3,200 globally) now is  a pandemic— with cases in 76 countries. As a result, more companies are restricting travel and pulling out of conferences to protect employees; and airlines are waiving flight change fees to encourage customers to book despite uncertainty about how far the outbreak will spread.

United is the major first U.S. carrier to announce broad cuts to its operations, but it’s unlikely to be the last, as the virus has “gutted” demand for air travel, Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group, told The Chicago Tribune.

In April, United plans to slash its international schedule by 20% and its domestic schedule by 10%. Similar reductions are expected in May, airline executives said in a letter to employees Wednesday. The airline is asking employees to volunteer for unpaid leaves of absence, and is postponing some salary increases and hiring

.Scaling back its schedule now will make it easier for United to return to normal operations, spokesperson Charles Hobart told the news outlet. “We expect the recovery to be smoother than had we taken a more wait-and-see approach and lost the ability to control our own actions,” he said.

The airline declined to say how much demand for flights was down, but in a regulatory filing last month, United reported a 75% drop in demand for its Asian routes outside of China.

Its pared-back schedule is not expected to cut off service to any U.S. city it currently serves. In some cases, the airline is reducing the frequency of flights on a particular route, delaying the start of seasonal service, or halting routes if travelers can connect through another United hub. Seasonal flights between Chicago and Zurich that usually start in April will be pushed back, for instance, and United is suspending flights between Chicago and Eugene, Oregon, Hobart said.

United will contact affected customers who have already booked flights to offer alternatives, Hobart said.

Research contact: @united

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