United Airlines Melting Down For The Holidays

On November 4, United Airlines sent out a remarkable email to customers where they trolled their competitors for the operational problems they’d had, and promising that United would be the carrier everyone could rely on for their holiday plans.

I wrote at the time that’s called tempting fate and – right on schedule – United’s operation appears to be melting down.

United CEO Scott Kirby wrote that because they brought their schedule back more slowly than competitors, because they kept their pilots flying throughout the pandemic instead of paying them to sit home, because they were already through their vaccine requirements and had better technology, they wouldn’t have the problems that have plagued American Airliens, Delta, Southwest, and Spirit (without naming names).

So what’s going on?

  • United has cancelled 52 flights today and delayed 298 more – surpassed only by Chinese airlines (in part forced to cancel by their country’s lock downs) and Air India.

  • They’ve already cancelled 110 flights for Christmas Eve Day. In contrast neither American nor Southwest have yet to cancel any. And United’s cancel numbers have been rising rapidly the past few hours.

  • United is doing so poorly that it’s concealing how badly Delta is doing with 41 cancels today and 50 tomorrow so far.

Aviation watchdog JonNYC notes that United’s cancellations are heavily concentrated on their Boeing 737 operation, due to lack of pilots. While United had been bragging that they’d kept their pilots ready to fly, so wouldn’t have a shortage, JonNYC also notes that United is over 300 pilots short, placed on involuntary leave for obtaining religious exemptions to the carrier’s vaccine requirement.

United is already starting to cancel flights for Saturday and things may get worse because,

  • They certainly have more ‘open trips’ without crew assigned, they’re looking for and hoping to fill these slots, but they won’t be successful with all of them.

  • Once a flight cancels for lack of crew, they’re likely to cancel additional downline flights that that crew would have operated.

  • And planes are going to be out of position to fly their schedules the next day, too. It takes time to recover from out of position crew and planes.

And of course this is all happening for the holidays exactly as the airline’s CEO said it wouldn’t. He’s been doing victory laps on TV for finishing up the carrier’s vaccine mandate and talking up how the carrier hasn’t had operational nightmares the way competitors have. This was, perhaps, inevitable after marketing,

Many of you have asked if you can book with confidence on United this holiday season. And the short answer is, yes you can!

That’s because we’ve taken a unique approach to the complexity of rebuilding an airline in the midst of a pandemic

Hopefully the unique approach will allow them to stop at the tens of thousands of customers whose holiday plans are already being disrupted.

Update: United Airlines is telling employees the problem is too many Covid infections among its crew.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. 52 flights isn’t an operational meltdown.

    Southwest cancelled over 1,800 flights in a two-day period in October.

    AA’s October meltdown say it cancel 2,200 in a Friday-Monday period.

  2. Scott Kirby doesn’t have the emotional intelligence of a 3 year old.
    You don’t brag about safety, and these days, you don’t brag IN ADVANCE about what you are going to do compared to competitors.
    If you manage to beat your competitors, then brag afterward.

    And if this is due to a pilot shortage because of vaccine mandates, then Kirby has all the more egg on his face.

    Given that Delta specifically asked the CDC to reduce the quarantine requirement for people that test positive after vaccination, I suspect that the problem at Delta and at least partially at United is due to positive tests and the need to pull crew members for a big chunk of the month.

    And let’s also remember that Delta operates about 500 more mainline flights/day than United which outsources more flying by both percentage and absolute number of flights to regional carriers than any other US airline,

  3. Part of the pilot shortage problem with each airline has to do with the terms of their pilot furlough programs. The pilots wanted to be able to secure other employment during furlough. The airlines typically guaranteed that they would not recall the pilots for at least 24 months. We likely have 9 months or so more of this. I’m only suggesting that this is a contributing factor and not THE cause.

  4. Didn’t they use the “bringing back schedule slowly” excuse for a reason not to add bonus holiday pay and continued push for required vaccinations for employees? Could be biting back with work to rule and sick outs.

  5. Let’s not forget the delays… I flew 2 United mainline flights last Friday (Dec 17) from BNA>EWR>DTW. Both flights were delayed over an hour due to lack of ramp staff. In Nashville they took an hour AFTER posted departure to load luggage. After arriving late in Newark, we sat on the ramp short of the gate for 20 minutes waiting for ramp staff to guide us in. My connection was one gate away, but fortunately the aforementioned delay allowed me to get there in time. We were ultimately two hours late to Detroit. Fortunately the flight crew did not time out during the delay. I noted that the three rampers who did load luggage in Newark were all wearing Supervisor vests. Not a great performance by United.

  6. Looks like Alaska JetBlue and Spirit are all at more than 1% cancellations which is where Delta is today. Apparently the American and Southwest employees are out spreading disease to keep their incentive pay as Gary suggested might be the case

  7. 298 delays? That’s it ?

    Air Canada only runs ~70% on time at their best, 40% OTP monthly is not uncommon

  8. Being reported in WaPo that it is due to a surge in Covid cases amongst employees. And that Delta is rapidly canceling as well for the same reason. Whether this is convenient blaming or reality, who knows. But given the spread amongst sports teams and, well, pretty much everywhere…I am inclined to believe them.

  9. Way to jump to conclusions Gary. United would spike all their vaccine religious exemptions right before Christmas!? Come on, use common sense. Its obviously all pilots testing positive, especially in NJ.

  10. Very bad reporting sir. You should be ashamed. 52 is not a meltdown. I used to love this website. I used to love reading aviation articles. Now people like Gary have turned into the CNN/Fox type of media reporting that disgusts me so much.

  11. Daniel have faith! The dominoes are starting to fall. GL knows of which he speaks! After all, he is The Thought Leader in Travel!

  12. @Gary – You said in the comments that this is “the start” of a meltdown, which is not the same as an actual meltdown. Not saying it won’t get worse but wouldn’t it be better to wait until it does? Putting this in the same bucket as the thousands of cancellations from other actual meltdowns doesn’t seem fair, especially when other airlines are canceling but only UA is mentioned in headline.

  13. This seems like poor reporting at best… crews coming down with the most transmissible variant so far is not an operational meltdown. While vaccinated people are still well protected from severe disease, they’re catching it at a rapid pace as well as the unvaccinated in skyrocketing numbers. That’s not United’s fault. Would you rather they work while infectious?

  14. The people who keep chanting “cases don’t matter only hospitalizations matter” are in for a rude awakening when they’re isn’t enough healthy staff to fly planes, staff supermarkets, and do everything else we expect in our day to day

  15. @Tim Dunn: when you say “Scott Kirby doesn’t have the emotional intelligence of a 3 year old.” that isn’t the insult you intend. No grown person wants the emotional intelligence of a 3 year old. I think you mean to say he “has”……………….I assume you are implying a 3 year old has more but when written it doesn’t say the same thing.

  16. When 1% of the workforce gets COVID-19 per day, you start running out of people needed to run your operations smoothly in just a couple of days.

    UA got hit first because of having two hubs in the current Omicron epicenters of NYC and Washington, DC; other airlines will be similarly hit when Omicron spreads to their hubs — and spread it will, since the USA is still not putting a fight against the virus and will continue to let it take control.

  17. Gary has been pacing feverishly waiting for an opportunity to bash UA…now he’s stuffing his face fully erect with excitement. Unfortunately what’s likely going to happen is that UA was just being proactive which is why these cancels are coming out now…DL, AA, and WN are going to end up in the same boat

  18. No, Bob, United is facing the same problem that multiple other businesses are facing. When employees test positive, they have to quarantine. Quarantine is not a good thing for public-facing and other human contact employees – which is about all of the “gears” of an airline.

    Whether Scott Kirby has or does not have the emotional intelligence of a 3 year old or less than a 3 year old, United is getting the karma it deserves for trashing competitors before the pandemic is over. Not a rational soul expected that we were through. Bragging about how well you have done when others are doing far better right now whether by paying staff to show up – infected or not – is the height of arrogance.

  19. “Aviation watchdog JonNYC”?!?!

    Sure, if you say so. Airline leaker is more accurate. A good amount of his comments are not original insight or analysis, but reused info provided to him by airline insiders.

  20. Gary Leff doesn’t have any credibility with regard to anything concerning United but He’s always got a lame excuse for Southwest. What a pathetic hack.

  21. Up to 168 at least cancellations for United on Christmas eve as of Friday morning. I bet this will get worse due to a dominos effect and mixing a little weather into it.
    I laugh at the comments against calling this a “meltdown”. Sure that is a bit of hyperbole but I bet some of those same folks would call it an “outbreak” if 50 out of 6000 on a cruise ship tested positive. Fun times.
    What surprises (or shouldn’t surprise me because of politics) is how the CDC and Biden won’t ground planes or even require vaccine cards to board planes that are going to spread covid all over the planet for Christmas

  22. Last evening, I took UA 818 out of EZE for IAH at its scheduled departure time of 10:05pm, arriving slightly ahead of time at IAH, where there was no evidence of a “meltdown”. In fact, I just boarded, ON TIME, UA 1536 for EWR, my final destination and there is still no evidence of a “meltdown”. It is therefore clear that the self-anointed ‘thought leader in travel’ misfired yet again. In fact, every time he tries to disparage Scott Kirby, the “Destroyer of Airlines”, it’s he, the “thought leader”, who ends up with a pie in the face.

    About that “meltdown” that this blog post claims is limited only to UA, here’s what the WaPo (of the Watergate fame) reported about it:

    Major commercial airlines United and Delta said they would cancel dozens of flights on Christmas Eve, citing staff shortages stemming from the omicron-fueled surge in coronavirus cases sweeping the country.

    On Thursday, United Airlines said in a statement it was canceling 120 flights the following day because the fast-spreading variant has had “a direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation.”

    Delta said in a statement that its teams had “exhausted all options and resources — including rerouting and substitutions of aircraft and crews to cover schedules flying” before canceling over 90 flights on Christmas Eve due to weather events and staffing issues.


  23. Gary, it’s fair to say that perhaps you jumped the gun on this one, since operations appear to have stabilized today, and Delta and UA both having held numbers down to less than 200. This is not the thousands that occurred earlier with year with WN and AA. Passengers in our family have been rerouted and are in flight to their destination, after suffering a cancellation. That’s anecdotal, but FlightAware statistics are not. So this was a pile on before there was a pile, perhaps.

  24. Cancelling more than a couple percent of flights/day is not normal. Period.
    People used the term “meltdown” to describe Delta’s meltdowns on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years holidays of 2020-21 even though it involved a smaller number of flights but comparable percentages. Delta’s cancellations almost entirely happened on the holiday itself.
    If Kirby wants to call Delta’s holiday cancellations a meltdown then his are as well.
    The simple fact is that through the month of September which included the summer when American and Southwest EACH cancelled thousands of flights, United STILL ended up with a worse on-time ratio on its entire network including regional carriers since the beginning of the year. American and Southwest might have had massive cancellations on a couple of occasions this summer and Delta to a far less degree on a few specific holidays themselves (when there were a whole lot fewer flights to begin with) but United clearly runs a far worse operation on a day to day basis – which is how you end up with a lower ratio compared to peers that you want to say run a far worse operation at times – when it is clear it is you that you do a worse job.
    The simple principle here is that airlines are subject to all kinds of operational issues. If you really are at the top of the heap, then you have reason to brag AFTER all is said and done – but gloating about what you have done because you cherrypick a few dates and then fail every other day of the year is not honest -and that is why Kirby looks like the fool that he is.

    If South Africa is an example, their omicron cases jumped dramatically and then fell just about as fast. The issue in the US and much of Europe is not that the number of hospitalizations and deaths is anywhere close to previous variants because they are not but that quarantine requirements for positive employees even if they are asymptomatic reduces staffing – and THAT is what is happening to US airlines.

    If we tracked the flu (which is also spiking) or any other contagious disease, we would get a lot of positive cases too.

  25. United gets the headline, but Delta is already exceeding United’s gross number of cancellations today and tomorrow.

  26. thank you, Gary.
    And to clarify my previous comment, United’s domestic COMPLETION ratio was LOWER than American YTD through Sept. and was 5X worse than Delta’s even if just looking at mainline.
    Cherrypicking a few data points trying to find a point about which to brag always backfires.

    The issue re: why American and Southwest aren’t seeing similar levels of cancellations clearly has to involve the incentive pay they are giving out which other airlines are not. It is entirely possible, but pretty doubtful, that Delta and United and JetBlue and Alaska employees are testing more than normal in order to test positive but it is likely equally likely that some AA and WN employees are not testing in order to be sure they can get incentive pay. You called what might happen w/ incentive pay right. Unless of course we believe the virus doesn’t work the same way on AA and WN employees.

    and also nobody noted that Spirit had a rash of cancellations within the past couple weeks but they subsided in time for the holidays. Maybe they are offering incentive pay too? or their people got infected early and have moved on….

  27. At Jose: its because of the 300 pilots who DIDN’T GET VACCINATED!
    Did you READ the effing post!!!???

  28. Gary, not defending UA or DL, just saying your over the top meltdown comment was not called for. Today’s operations are not a meltdown in any reasonable sense, Gary.

  29. Not in any reasonable sense, this is NOT A MELTDOWN! IT’s obvious Gary has a lot of free time on his hands, either that, or he has some sort of personal beef with UA. Chill Gary, and Merry Xmas !!

  30. If only United had more crews that could work the flights.

    Oh, wait! They do! United put hundreds of employees (Pilots, Flight Attendants) on indefinite, unpaid leave because those employees got valid exemptions to United’s vaccine mandate, but having them work would keep United from being able to advertise “We’re 100% Vaccinated!”

    So instead of letting them work (with the same safety accommodations all the employees used to do – that UNITED THEMSELVES said kept everyone safe, like social distancing, temp checks, mask usage, etc) United would rather inconvenience thousands of customers and keep those Pilots and Flight Attendants sitting at home. United says (even today) that it’s virtually IMPOSSIBLE to catch Covid on a plane, yet they can’t allow these employees to work. So they cancel, cancel, cancel…

    But, hey! United gets to keep their marketing plan! SMH

  31. wow, its great to see all these United employees posting this crap, I pray theres a meltdown! lolololo, and the vaxxed are all getting sick because the vax destroys your immune system! wake up! NWO is rearing its ugly head! wear a mask to sleep too!! its great for the lungs! #United Collapse! Go Gary!

  32. @ Jorge Paez:

    Do you understand the issue with the 300+ pilots with exemptions to the vaccine?

    United hasn’t let them work since the beginning of October. THEY ARE NOT FLYING OR WORKING! If you are implying the unvaccinated are spreading Covid to crews, causing the cancellations, you are simply wrong.

    United is understaffed, and yet they are keeping experienced, qualified pilots and flight attendants on the sidelines. And if you say that is necessary to keep their other crews and passengers safe – UNITED IS THE ONLY AIRLINE DOING IT!

    Airlines that allow / let unvaccinated crews still work:
    – Alaska
    – Allegiant
    – American
    – Delta
    – Frontier
    – Hawaiian
    – JetBlue
    – Southwest

    United could solve this TODAY – allowing the exempted crews to go back to work. But that would interfere with their current marketing campaign (“We’re 100% vaccinated!”) so they would rather be able to say that in their ads than take care of their customers.

  33. What United is experiencing is a meltdown because it involves the exact same percentages or MORE of what other carriers including Delta experienced on other SINGLE holidays – which Kirby lumped in the same definition of meltdown as American and Southwest’s cancellation of double digit percentages of flights over multiple days.
    The simple reality is that Kirby specifically said that United would not experience the same cancellations that other carriers and that is exactly what has happened.
    A flight is cancellation or delayed once it does not operate as scheduled. The fact that one carrier has cancelled more in advance doesn’t mean others won’t cancel more flights closer to departure.

    The hypocrisy is calling somewhat else out and then doing the same thing. Trying to justify your own behavior because you think someone else is doing what you think is worse because you slice and dice data to your benefit is the definition of hypocrisy.

    United has operated a lower percentage of its own flights than American and Delta since the beginning of the year. United’s mainline cancellation rate even excluding the regional jet flights that operate more than half of United’s domestic schedule is multiples of times higher than Delta.

    American has had a few spectacular meltdowns but clearly runs a better operation on all the other day than United.

    And, whether Kirby likes it or not or whether I think it was a good idea, American and Southwest have avoided cancellations like United by paying employees to show up, sick or not. Other airlines have paid bonuses in the past and likely brought more germs to work. Add in that, once you start paying holiday bonuses just to do your regular job which most certainly includes working holidays unless you have enough seniority to bid them off, it is a whole lot less likely that employees will show up in the future w/o bonuses.

    If AA and WN can justify substantially higher labor costs, then ultimately they are accountable to their shareholders for paying bonuses as Delta and United’s management is to their owner/stockholders who saw their airlines featured in news stories for running poor operations. American and United weren’t expected to be profitable this quarter while Delta said it would be and provided an expected profit number while Southwest said it would but didn’t provide any specific number.

    Trashing Gary because he raises a topic that you want to shut down is not cool. When the conversation runs its course, it will be archived.

  34. As of 9:12am ET Friday, UA cancelled 170 flights (9% of its schedule), DL cancelled 130 flights, and B6 cancelled more than 50 flights (5%). This was reported by CNN.

    By comparison, AA cancelled 543 and 431 flights on Friday and Saturday, respectively, of the previous meltdown. By calling the current event a meltdown, it’s equivalent of calling Gary having early onset dementia because he had 3 typos and grammatical mistakes.

    @Tim Dunn showing up while you are sick, regardless of what transmissible disease, is irresponsible.

  35. @Tim Dunn – Please stop with the nonsense. There is no operations meltdown to speak of, I am speaking as one who’s just been physically in two of UA’s major hubs. You cannot make the case that the announced cancellations, which DL also announced, prove that Kirby was full of it for making fun of the other airlines (a) because the cause and scope of those meltdowns we’re different and (b) it is quite likely that the latest cancellations could have been much worse if UA had not been prepared as Kirby had claimed the company was at the time.

    Stop hyperventilating.

  36. Kirby specifically called out Delta’s operational meltdown which involved a lower number of flights and a similar or lower percentage of flights.
    The only hyperventilation is you trying to justify UA’s behavior while throwing other airlines under the bus.
    United runs a worse operation than American and Delta month after month; picking out a few days that proves you do better smacks of hypocrisy. If Kirby didn’t know that data better he opened his mouth, then he shouldn’t be making statements about competitors. If he did know it and thought the rest of the world would not notice, then he and you deserve to be called out.

    And let’s also note that even with much larger mass cancellations, AA and WN BOTH have much lower customer complaint ratios with the DOT than United.

    As much as United wants to make everyone believe they are doing better, they might be doing better than what they have done in the past but they are statistically worse than at least some of their big 4 competitors in every category and on at least one category, UA is worse than them all.

    The lesson is for United to quit gloating esp. in advance.

  37. Guess the current generatoon of airline executies -out of the Parker stable – failed in B-School to learn one of the most basic principles of day to day airline operations:
    “What goes around; comes around.”

  38. Kirby specifically called out Delta’s operational meltdown which involved a lower number of flights and a similar or lower percentage of flights.

    -Tim Dunn

    Despite being informed repeatedly that his claim above is utterly bogus, good ol’ Tim won’t be deterred.

    UA’s current cancellations are a blip in comparison to AA’s massive meltdown. You have no point to make…whatsoever.

  39. Funny how the best comeback is “nuh uhh. American was a meltdown, or SW was a meltdown”. “This little blip for UA is just that a blip.”

    Tomato / Tomaaato …

    Arguing over someone’s definition. So, “United is having a significant disruption with nearly 10% cancellation rates this holiday weekend.”

    There fixed it for you … meltdown gone.

    But, don’t let your Christmas candles meltdown and cause damage or a fire!

  40. DCS,
    Kirby most definitely referred to meltdowns at AA, DL and WN. If you can specifically show that he didn’t include Delta, then post it.
    And trying to justify one’s behavior by arguing that “I only screwed up a fraction of what someone else did” might be fashionable in today’s society, nobody with half an ounce of grey cells buys it.

    United, quite simply, has cancelled and delayed a higher percentage of flights this year and in every month of this year than at least one of its competitors.

    Instead of trashing people here who point out facts that you don’t want to hear, how about you explain why UA’s on-time and cancellation performance is CONSISTENTLY much worse than at least one of its big 4 peers and why its consumer complaint ratio has been the bottom of the big 4 – and also worse than many smaller airlines – for the entire year.

    The number of flights ultimately doesn’t matter. How well you take care of passengers does matter.

    Given that it is FACT that UA operates worse than its peers and UA’s customers complain about UA to the federal government at a higher rate than most of the industry – JetBlue is in a similar camp – then United is not the spotless virgin you would like to think it is.

    And the point you still can’t accept is that Kirby had the unmitigated gall to tell his customers that they didn’t need to worry about what happened at other airlines happening at United this holiday season.

    And now, United is at the front of the pack in terms of cancellations so far in both absolute numbers and percentage of flights.

    Instead of trashing everyone else, how about you admit that it was classless and arrogant to send out that email to customers in the first place – and United is getting bit hard.

    As hard as it is for you to reach that conclusion, I doubt we will see another email like that from United. Kirby is arrogant but he is capable of learning from his mistakes.

    Like telling USAirways employees how well the LGA-DCA slot transaction with Delta would be good, this little bragfest will go on Kirby’s resume as yet another bad judgment

  41. Mr. Robert Turner: I implied nothing.
    They way I remember Garys other post the 300 pilots got exemptions (or did they refuse exemptions-I can’t remember) so Uniteds policy is those employees sit or do stuff not public facing as all Uniteds employees in the same boat have to do.
    What other airlines do doesn’t seem to matter to United. I don’t have an opinion on that, I can’t even remember what the original government mandate says. I think it said you can work with exemptions so maybe the pilots didn’t do that? If they didn’t do that, well I think it was unwise. Garys post above isn’t about that, it’s about Uniteds hypocrisy which I totally agree with.
    Should I imply that you are a United pilot or significant other? No.
    I don’t do that.
    Do I think the pilots should have gotten the jab? Yes, it’s better than the chance of dying of the ‘Rona.
    Our hospitals bursting at the seams with unvaccinated patients is proof.
    And a lot of them tell anyone close to them before last call for life
    “wish I had gotten the shot!”
    I was in the emergency room yesterday for a busted shoulder and the nurses were stressed out because of that and harassment. Sad. They’ve posted a big sign at check in: aggressive behavior will not be tolerated. Sad. Hoe did we come to this point? Well, I have an opinion about that but I’m not going to argue with you about it. I don’t even want to post comments on this blog anymore because it frequently gets political no matter the subject. Sad. And you know what the saddest thing of all is? I sometimes wish all the unvaccinated fools would catch the ‘Rona and die, problem solved. I’m a liberal Catholic who follows the actual words of JESUS, not the hypocritical musings of the bloated, corrupt organizations sprouted up in his name that just seem to be about money and telling other people what to do or else hating them. JESUS was never about hate, but that’s what my thoughts have sometimes devolved to. Sad, very, very sad…..

    I never implied those sidelined pilots were causing infections.
    Now that I re-read the post from Jose I think he was being sarcastic.

  42. @TimDunn is turning into a rabid anti-UA crazy precisely because DL isn’t as golden as he’d like to think they are. You could ask Ed about that but you won’t find him on the mainline – it’s only DPJ for Ed. Sheesh, you’d think he worked for Netjets.

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