Politico

United CEO: Business travel will come back — eventually


Reports of the death of business travel are greatly exaggerated, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on Wednesday.

“I don’t think it will happen immediately,” Kirby said during a POLITICO Live event. “I think it may take a year or two until you get back, but we’re firmly in the camp that believes business demand is going to come back.”

The air travel industry has seen passenger rates decimated for months as the coronavirus pandemic came ashore, forcing governments to impose considerable economic restrictions and workers to shift to videoconferencing and other technology to carry out business dealings.

“These may be a substitute for being there in person, but they are not the same,” Kirby said.

Airlines have been seeking tens of billions of dollars in additional federal assistance to offset losses from grounded or nearly empty flights, as well as the additional expenses incurred to try to reassure passengers that it is safe to resume travel activities.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Wednesday that President Donald Trump remained open to continuing to assist airlines.

“The president has mentioned previously that he wanted to take a good look at airlines, and help where he can,“ McEnany said. “He’s always made clear that his big priority — number one — is unemployed Americans, Americans who have been hurt by this pandemic.“

Kirby said he was “cautiously optimistic” the industry would be included in a future relief package, which federal lawmakers remain far apart on and with no deal is in sight as the November election looms.

“Everyone recognizes the challenge and the need to do more,” he said. “I’m just hopeful we’ll be able to get something done, and get something done soon.”

The industry has already received billions in federal packages passed earlier this year to weather the economic shocks from the pandemic, and has come under criticism — particularly from the left — for the amount of money being dedicated to private airlines as opposed to public transportation systems that are similarly vital to bringing back economic life.

Pilot, flight attendant and other unions in the sector have been urging Congress to allocate more than $30 billion in payroll assistance and extend a prohibition on involuntary furloughs — set to expire at the end of the month — through March 31.

“There’s no way the industry can exist on its own — no business can exist on 15 percent of the revenue it had the previous year,“ Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, said during the event. “We will not be able to ramp back up the way we need to for the entire economy if we do not keep these jobs in place right now.“

Nelson and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) urged lawmakers to enact safety precautions, including a federal mandate on wearing facial coverings on flights and in airports, to curb transmission of the virus and assure weary travelers.

“People are not traveling like they used to,” Larsen said. “The public health response is going to lead the economic recovery.”

Multiple panelists predicted that operators would continue to reconfigure planes and airports to minimize the amount of contact between travelers, security workers and airline staff.

However, “that becomes more of a challenge as traffic returns to the system,“ said Joel Bacon of the American Association of Airport Executives. “In a lot of airports, space is at a premium.“

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