Politico

United CEO sees low air travel until a widely available vaccine


United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on Sunday that, while he believes it’s safe to fly now, he doesn’t see air travel returning to prepandemic levels until a coronavirus vaccine is developed and widely distributed.

“Our view is, demand is not coming back, people are not going to get back and travel like they did before until there is a vaccine that’s been widely distributed and available to a large portion of the population,” Kirby said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I hope that happens sooner, but our guess is that’s the end of next year.”

Airlines have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, which has decimated demand for both leisure and business travel amid safety concerns and as other countries bar American travelers. Specifically, Kirby touted United’s partnership with cleaning products firm Clorox and studies the company is conducting on air filtration in its airliner cabins.

Some sectors of the economy may be able to bounce back before a coronavirus vaccine is widely distributed, Kirby said, but the aviation industry is not one of them. Without an extension of funds for airlines in March’s CARES Act by Oct. 1, Kirby predicted about 16,000 layoffs at his company.

The airline chief said international travel, which represents half of United’s revenue, is still badly lagging and that business travel is almost nonexistent.

“In a business like ours, demand is not going to come back until people feel safe being around other people, and that’s going to take a vaccine,” Kirby said.

Appearing separately Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm, asked to explain recent comments by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci that Americans would need to “hunker down” in the coming months, predicted it would take months of vaccine distribution to have a meaningful effect on the American population.

“When the vaccine does become available, it won’t be in any meaningful way until the beginning of next year, and then it’s still going to take us months to vaccinate the population of just this country,” said Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“We really have another 12 to 14 months of a really hard road ahead of us,” he added.

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