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Lack of air traffic controllers is industry's biggest issue, United Airlines CEO says

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby speaks during a joint press event with Boeing at the Boeing manufacturing facility in North Charleston, South Carolina, on December 13, 2022.
AFP via Getty Images
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby speaks during a joint press event with Boeing at the Boeing manufacturing facility in North Charleston, South Carolina, on December 13, 2022.

This coming Memorial Day weekend could be the busiest in years for air travel. Close to 3.5 million travelers are expected to fly this weekend, according to AAA — a more than five percent increase over 2019.

Meanwhile, the airline industry has had multiple disruptions recently. Perhaps the greatest was the Southwest Airlines meltdown over the winter holidays, when the carrier canceled more than 15,000 U.S. flights after a technical failure.

So are airlines ready for the weekend?

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby spoke to Morning Edition host Michel Martin from the Denver Airport.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On how United Airlines is trying to contain weather-related delays

When weather happens, there's nothing you can do. But what you can do is recover quickly. What we attempt to do is really isolate the problem to the day and the location where the weather is, and not have it bleed over into the rest of the system. We've gotten pretty good at that. It's not always possible – especially if there's weather rolling across the entire country, that's where it gets really challenging. But for the most part, if a storm hits Denver and closes the airport for a few hours, we've gotten pretty good at isolating it to just that day and that airport.

On challenges facing airlines

The biggest issue for us and for the industry is air traffic control staffing shortages. The secretary of transportation acknowledged that they're short 3,000 controllers. We have fewer air traffic controllers today than we had 30 years ago. Here in Denver, the last two days we woke up to a 30% reduction in the arrival rate for aircraft at the airport because of [air traffic control] staffing shortages on clear, blue sky days. That is by far the biggest issue, and the most addressable.

By the way, it's not the FAA's fault – this is a 20- to 30-year-old issue. They simply don't have the Congressional authorization. We are working hard to get the right amount of resources and a bipartisan FAA reauthorization bill to address that issue.

These issues are never isolated. When Denver had that reduction in arrival rates, that doesn't just impact those flights. Those are airplanes that are scheduled to keep flying around the whole country for the rest of the day. The same thing happens in New York. It's a help that the number of flights have been reduced in the New York airspace this summer. But this isn't unique to New York – it's everywhere in the country, and it really is about [air traffic control] staffing, and we have to fix that issue. We've invested in physical infrastructure like four parallel runways here in Denver, but we couldn't use two of them [Monday] because there weren't enough air traffic controllers to use the other two runways.

On labor negotiations with pilots

We think our pilots deserve an industry-leading contract, and we have put that deal on the table. It includes significant work rule enhancements. There are a lot of changes that they requested in the contract, and an awful lot of changes that we've agreed to, and it's just taking a little time. But the deal that we have on the table is a better deal than either the Delta [Airlines] deal or the recently announced American [Airlines] deal. So I hope that we are close to the finish line with them.

On high air travel prices

Prices have returned to pre-pandemic levels. Fares collapsed during COVID. If you go back to pre-pandemic, they're still lower than they were in real terms 10 years ago, and I think we've just returned to normal. My guess would be fares are going to grow with inflation in the overall economy as they've historically done. But they're never going to go back to the artificial lows of COVID.

On the Biden administration's proposed protections for airline customers

I saw the secretary of transportation two weeks ago, and I'll tell you exactly what I said to him, which is we have every motivation to run a reliable operation because that's what's best for our customers, which means that's what's best for our business. And we are doing that. By far the biggest issue that we have is the weather and air traffic control delays. I mean, every day it's chronic. Every day we wake up to restrictions in the amount of capacity that we can have, and that bleeds through the rest of the system.

But I think the most important point is safety. We start from Day One with every employee — we drill it into them that safety is No. 1. You don't think about costs. And if you all of a sudden start saying, well, there's a big expense associated with delaying or canceling this flight – I don't want to chip away at that safety foundation with the pilot or mechanic in the back of their minds saying, "Well, this is a close call and it's going to cost a lot of money" – we shouldn't do that.

On the looming debt ceiling deadline

The economy is balanced on a knife's edge. When the Silicon Valley banking scare happened, we saw a 15% drop in bookings overnight for business travel. That tells you how fragile the economy is. Defaulting on the debt would be an unnecessary unforced error and we just shouldn't do it. To me, our politicians — and this is a bipartisan comment – need on both sides to find a compromise and not let this happen because it's just a really big risk. Maybe it winds up lasting one or two days and no big deal. But there's a lot of dominos lined up and they're really fragile. And if it starts knocking over the other dominoes, it goes from a debt default to some kind of banking crisis or something else. That's the real risk, and it would just be crazy for us to not get this done.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ally Schweitzer (she/her) is an editor with NPR's Morning Edition. She joined the show in October 2022 after eight years at WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington.