United CEO Sees ‘Huge Desire’ Fueling U.S. Air Travel Rebound

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Leisure travel on U.S. airlines now exceeds pre-pandemic levels and severely depressed business flying is expected to begin returning in the fall, United Airlines Holdings Inc.’s chief executive officer said.

Air travel to many international destinations remains lower because of restrictions, but trans-Atlantic travel should break records by next summer, United chief Scott Kirby said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“We see a huge desire for people to get back out, reunite with friends and family and connect with the world,” Kirby said. “We aren’t back to 100%, but we’re certainly headed in the right direction.”

After falling by more than 95% in the spring of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic erupted, passenger loads have improved dramatically. An average of almost 2 million people a day traveled during the past week, about 76% of the equivalent period in 2019, according to Transportation Security Administration data.

While United has been able to bring workers back to handle the demand, some airport businesses and the TSA’s corps of security screeners haven’t always been able to keep up, Kirby said.

“There is some rust and some strains in the system,” he said.

He predicted travel to Europe would rebound as soon as the U.S. lifts restrictions on flying by non-U.S. citizens, but said it would take longer for Asian routes to recover.

Kirby said he has his “fingers crossed” that the requirement for airline passengers and others on public transportation to wear masks will end when the current federal rule expires on Sept. 14.

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