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. Checking in at ~6pm EST on Dec 24 –

    Cancellations between Dec 23 and Dec 26 (per FlightAware):

    United: 58 + 191 + 150 + 25 = 424
    Delta: 46 + 169 + 219 + 52 = 486

    Credit where credit is due to American for avoiding the spotlight this holiday!

  2. @Tim Dunn – Your whole thesis is colored by the version of UA that received very bad publicity and was much criticized following the merger with CO, but especially after the Dr. Dao dragging fiasco.
    However, to anyone who has been paying attention, that UA no longer exists. You are still referring to that ‘UA’, which is why you keep insisting on pushing the bogus claim that UA’s just announced ‘cancellations’ are much worse than those of other lines. It is a blatant case of false equivalence. To claim otherwise is to be utterly confused or worse.

  3. Been there,
    I’m not trying to justify anything.
    I keep at it because of people like you that can’t OWN that United screwed up.
    Delta’s CEO didn’t send out an email to customers saying they could trust them not to have the meltdowns that other airlines have had.
    The issue is not that anyone is having problems but that Scott Kirby was arrogant enough to think he would do better when United hasn’t done better year to date on any metric than any of its big 3 competitors.
    Kirby screwed up not for having employees that tested positive but for being arrogant enough to think that United would be exempt from the problems the rest of the industry has faced and is facing.

    If there is a real point of discussion, it is whether it is good policy for AA and WN to be paying people a bonus to do their job on holidays when the evidence is pretty high that their employees are not testing to the degree that Delta and United’s employees. To somehow think that Delta and United employees are getting covid but American and Southwest’s are not is pure naivety.

  4. DCS,
    you need only look at the post right above yours to see that United is cancelling a higher percentage of flights than any other airline.
    Delta operates about 500 more mainline flights per day than United so the percent of cancelled flights for United is higher than Delta.

    There is no false equivalence.

    And, once again, this isn’t about trying to justify who is better or who is worse. It is about United’s CEO having the gall to tell its customers that it would not be impacted by the same problems that other airlines have faced.

  5. @Tim – Today UA canceled 10% and DL canceled 8%. Tomorrow DL has canceled 11% and UA has canceled 8%. The numbers seem pretty similar overall.

    I’m just wondering when Gary will either remove the word “meltdown” from the headline or add “Delta” to it.

  6. Mark,
    I’m just wondering why you and others persist in worrying about who cancelled more.
    THAT is not the point.
    The point Gary made and which I have repeated multiple times is that Scott Kirby gloated that United wouldn’t suffer from the operational problems that other airlines have suffered.
    THAT is why this article exists.

    Merry Christmas if you do such things.

  7. I’m just wondering why you and others persist in worrying about who cancelled more.
    THAT is not the point.

    — Tim Dunn

    You’d rather the “point” be the one you choose it to be, i.e., about Kirby’s gloating. However, most had already understood from the get-go that the “meltdown” claimed in the post title was not just way over-the-top but also simply nonexistent, which is why who cancelled more is the point.

    Got it now? It is really not that complicated…

  8. DCS: The weekend isn’t over yet oh and thousands of flights all over the world are being canceled.
    I have my popcorn ready…..



  11. DCS,
    United alone cancelled 10% of its mainline flights yesterday and 12% today which is a comparable percentage to what American and Southwest cancelled this summer.
    You and you alone are the only one that cannot accept this is a full blown meltdown for United and Delta as well as JetBlue which is also at 12% today.
    The fact that United’s CEO assured his passengers that United would do better than its competitors is the complete hypocrisy.

    Clearly AA and WN managed to reduce but not eliminate cancellations due to staffing; whether their employees just didn’t bother to test or didn’t call in because of money will be the discussion in DL and UA’s exec offices but it is clear that airline employees have to be paid bonuses to show up to work on holidays.

    Vax status has nothing to do with anything.

  12. Oh cargocult (why am I not surprised you are in an obscure cult) you obviously didn’t read the whole post about my struggle or you also need to take a reading comprehension class (my, that class is getting crowded-better hurry!) Hate the sin, love the sinner!
    Not going to debate a closed mind but I can’t help adding one thing.
    GOD allows our soul to leave our bodies and GOD allows a soul to enter a newborn body when it takes its first breath after it’s born. That’s why babies are stillborn. GOD knows that body isn’t going to make it (defective DNA-its a thing). Same applies to the right to choose. See. I died ten years ago and was sent back. GOD and I had a nice conversation. Being surrounded by pure love was amazing! Believe one thing about me: I didn’t want to come back! So I know things.
    I realize I just made your head
    explode. Well, whatever.
    Merry Christmas!

  13. @Tim Dunn – The following is offered to show that your diatribe that polluted this space was pure nonsense. The fact is that when all airlines were hit by a double whammy, UA appears to have done relatively better because it was better prepared: it had preemptively cancelled flights, which helped to limit the pain of travelers. Here’s the WaPo;

    Bob Mann, an airline industry consultant, said the number of cancellations was higher than usual but not in “meltdown” territory of the kind that some carriers experienced this year, when rising demand for travel collided

    There are also indications that airlines have learned from previous disruptions. Canceling flights proactively has given passengers time to adjust their plans and helped avoid the kind of chaotic scenes that were seen at airports this summer and fall.

    United Airlines said Monday that it was canceling 115 flights on Monday because of staffing issues related to the virus. Spokeswoman Maddie King said half of its passengers who had to reschedule arrived either early or within four hours of their original landing time.


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