Why United expects Thanksgiving week to be busiest post-pandemic stretch — and why it’s returning to JFK

Josh Earnest never sugarcoats the situation. Air traffic is down. Way down. And United Airlines expects it to remain that way until a COVID-19 vaccine is both widely available and administered.

But Earnest, the chief communications officer for the airline, said there are positive moments in an industry that has been hit as hard as any. Tuesday morning, during a call with reporters, he offered two:

  1. The week of Thanksgiving will be the busiest for the airline since the pandemic started — and there’s a positive reason for this;
  2. The airline is returning to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York — an airport that some Jerseyans consider an option — after a five-year absence.

First, the busy travel week. It will not be like Thanksgiving weeks of the past. The airline is only flying 44% of the flights it did a year ago. That being said, United said it is adding 1,400 additional flights that week — and said it will monitor the situation and increase the size of planes as booking warrants.

Earnest said the airline feels the increase in plane travel is a result of positive experiences passengers have had after flying for the first time during the pandemic.

“What we’re seeing in the trends is that people who have already flown are much more likely to fly again, including over the holidays,” he said. “So, as we build up a base of customers who are more comfortable with air travel, and their confidence has been built in the safety of air travel, they’re more likely to buy a ticket to go see family for the holidays.

“And so, as that base of people who have experienced air travel in the midst of the pandemic and have come into the safety of it, they’re more likely to travel and, so, that base gets bigger. We have more travelers, and that’s what we’re anticipating of over the holiday.”

Earnest can’t predict how many just yet. Another trend United has seen since the pandemic is that more travelers are buying tickets in the final days before a flight.

“In the midst of the pandemic, we have seen many of our customers making decisions on much shorter notice than usual, booking their travel plans a week or two out instead of a month or two out,” he said.

Starting Tuesday, people can now book flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco from JFK.

Earnest said increased capacity at the airport enabled the airline to secure two daily nonstops to each site. He said he does not necessarily think the flights will take business away from Newark Liberty International Airport, its hub in the area. Instead, he viewed it as an opportunity to pick up market share in New York.

“The opportunity that we see here is to better serve those air travelers that preferred JFK airport,” he said.

Those flying out will get a premium experience.

Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president for domestic network planning, said the airline will fly on the 767 300ER — the plane the airline uses for trans-Atlantic flights. This plane has extended premium cabin seats, Gupta said, offering 16 additional business class seats (for a total of 46) as well as 22 premium plus seats and 47 economy plus seats. The plane has 167 overall.

For those who fly out of JFK and are familiar with the airport, United’s flights will leave from Terminal 7.

Earnest offered a few other insights during the call.

On Pfizer’s positive results from Stage 3 of its COVID-19 vaccine trial:

“What we have said since the early days of this crisis is that we did not expect and we do not expect our business to come back to anything resembling normal until there is a vaccine that’s been widely distributed and administered. So, we have a long way to go before we get back to anything that looks like normal.

“But, when you see news like we saw yesterday about the promise that the Pfizer vaccine shows in fighting the virus, obviously, we welcome that news. And, hopefully, our return to normal is now a little bit closer than it was before. So, we continue to watch all this closely.”

On air quality in airplanes:

“We partnered with the Department of Defense on a landmark study that shows just how safe it is for people to travel on a commercial aircraft. Based on the unique configuration of the airflow in the cabin, the Department of Defense concluded it’s nearly impossible to transmit the coronavirus in that setting even when the plane is full — and that’s because of how frequently fresh air is recirculated into the cabin. The use of hospital-grade air filters and because of the unique configuration of the air flowing from the ceiling to the floor. Those pathogens are not dispersed throughout the cabin, they are properly filtered out for where they exit the plane with the air.”

On more financial assistance from federal government because of the election result:

“Like everybody else, we continue to watch the situation in Washington, D.C. Over the last six months, we’ve made a really strong case for why financial assistance from the federal government is so important to the broader economy. And, in particular, the first round of assistance that we received was really important to protecting jobs.

“There’s an opportunity for the federal government to, again, provide assistance to airline workers. But what we’re advocating for is not just assistance to airline workers, but also support for the broader economy. You know, obviously, the success of the airlines depends on the ability of businesses and families to be able to afford travel. And, so, the stronger economy contributes to the strength of the airline industry.

“So, we’ve been making for several months, and we’ve been pleased that members of Congress in both parties have been very receptive to that argument. And, at the appropriate time, we’ll continue making it, but I wouldn’t hazard a guess at this point about how the odds have changed based on the outcome of the election.”