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United Airline CEO is proud of the deal with Boeing for 787 Dreamliners

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It was one of the sectors hit the earliest and the hardest when the pandemic began, but today we may have a new sign of how the airline industry is rebounding. United Airlines just announced a plan to buy 100 new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. It is a massive deal for these companies. And now let's talk about what it could mean for passengers, the environment and the economy with United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. Hi there. Thanks for speaking with us.

SCOTT KIRBY: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So, Scott, I'd like to start, if I could, with where the industry is right now. We've seen travel pick up this past year, but by at least one measure, airlines have lost a staggering $220 billion since the start of the pandemic. So tell us how this plan to buy these new planes fits into that recovery picture.

KIRBY: Sure. You know, we have seen a robust recovery. We did lose a lot during the pandemic, and we're really only eight months into the recovery. It really didn't start until the second quarter of this year. But our demand has come roaring back, and it's now stronger than it was even before the pandemic. And we have confidence that demand is going to be strong for a long time, especially international demand. There are a lot of constraints on supply and growth and pilot shortages, and the fact that both Boeing and Airbus are having supply chain challenges and have trouble producing airplanes and air traffic control saturation means that supply is challenged at the same time demand is strong. And so for airlines that have the ability to grow like United, it creates a really unique, I think, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

SUMMERS: So I want to get back to the details of that pilot shortage in just a moment, but I want to ask you a few questions about the specifics of this order. You have called this the biggest order ever of wide-body planes, and those are the kinds that have two aisles. How will this...

KIRBY: Right.

SUMMERS: ...Order change the flying experience for United's customers?

KIRBY: The airplanes will be, you know, the most modern, not just fuel-efficient but also from a customer perspective - so fast Wi-Fi, larger overhead bins, the most latest entertainment system. But it also means growth to places around the world that, in many cases, you know, Americans can't get to on a nonstop basis today. And we started this during the pandemic. And I think it just means more flight options on a much better, high-quality product for customers.

SUMMERS: And just to clarify here, when will those planes be in service?

KIRBY: The first airplanes from this order began in 2024 and then pick up in earnest in 2025.

SUMMERS: You mentioned the fact that these planes are meant to be more fuel-efficient, be able to fly longer distances on less fuel. So from an environmental standpoint, how does this order work towards the UN's goal of net-zero industry emissions by the year 2050?

KIRBY: Well, these aircraft are up to 25% more fuel-efficient than the airplanes that they'll replace. But that on its own is not enough to get you to zero. And for what it's worth, the sustainability provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, I think, are - we're going to look back and be able to say that was some of the most consequential legislation passed in the last couple of decades.

SUMMERS: United's pilots are without a contract right now, as are flight attendants, mechanics, other union workers. That last contract expired four years ago. And I know that some pilots picketed outside of your board of directors meeting last week in Houston. They say they've sacrificed throughout the pandemic. And I have to imagine that some of them might be wondering, if United can afford these new planes, why can't they afford to offer workers a better deal?

KIRBY: Well, I think we're going to be close on pilots and getting a deal. United was the only airline during the pandemic to negotiate a deal with our pilots successfully that allowed us to keep them all in position and really set the stage for this - what's happening at United today, including this aircraft order. We were also the first to get a deal with pilots earlier this year. And while it failed in the ratification vote, you know, there's another deal that's probably going to be done. I think that sets the stage. It's a rich deal but one that we'll be happy to offer to our pilots. And, you know, I think we're pretty close.

SUMMERS: You know, despite a pretty chaotic year for air travel, United did well over the Thanksgiving travel period - any prediction on what travelers can expect for the rest of the holiday season, especially if there's bad weather out there?

KIRBY: To give credit where it's due, the whole industry has been doing well for the last several months. And, you know, we've gotten great support from the FAA, who's been in there on a day-to-day basis with us making sure the air traffic control system is appropriately staffed. And really, all airlines across the board have pulled their flying schedule down and really just built more buffer into the system. And we've been seeing, even when there is weather, the impacts are smaller now than they were before and even smaller than they were pre-pandemic because we built more buffer. Now, that costs some money. We're going to keep that in place. And we have high confidence for the holidays. Now, there may be weather that impacts certain places, but because of that extra buffer, it's unlikely to spill over into a cascading set of delays around the system.

SUMMERS: Scott Kirby is the CEO of United Airlines. Thank you so much for joining us.

KIRBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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