The leaders of the country’s biggest airlines learned a hard lesson this summer: it’s easier to make plans than to keep them.
The three biggest U.S. carriers — Delta, United and American — are dialing back their flight growth ambitions, an effort to fly more reliably after biting off more than they could chew this year as they chased an unprecedented rebound in travel, despite a host of logistical and supply chain constraints as well as staffing shortages.
The cuts come as airlines face elevated costs that they don’t see easing significantly just yet, along with the possibility of an economic slowdown and questions over spending by some of the country’s biggest corporate travelers.
United Airlines estimated it would restore 89% of 2019 capacity levels in the third quarter, and about 90% in the fourth. In 2023, it will grow its schedule to no more than 8% above 2019′s, down from an earlier forecast that it would fly 20% more than it did in 2019, before the pandemic hamstrung travel.
“We’re essentially going to keep flying the same amount that we are today, which is less than we intended to, but not grow the airline until we can see evidence the whole system can support it,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in an interview with CNBC’s “Fast Money” after reporting results Wednesday. “We’re just building more buffer into the system so that we have more opportunity to accommodate those customers.”