United adding 25,000 flights in August despite spikes in COVID-19 cases

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A United Airlines plane taxis by parked United jets at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on April 14, 2020. - Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — United Airlines plans to fly about three times more routes in August than it did last month as passengers slowly return to the skies, even as the number of new COVID-19 cases across the U.S. rises.

Chicago-based United will have about 60% fewer flights on its schedule in August compared with the same month last year. But travelers are slowly coming back, particularly when it comes to domestic flights, said Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of domestic network planning.

The number of people passing through U.S. airport security checkpoints each day topped 600,000 on certain days in late June, down from 2.7 million people a year ago. Still, airports are busier than they’ve been since late March.

United is scheduling about 600 more domestic flights a day in August than July, including more flights between Hawaii and hubs including Chicago. The airline said it has seen interest in beach travel, suggesting passengers may be seeking outdoor vacation spots where social distancing could be easier.

Some states have slowed reopening plans after seeing an increase in cases of COVID-19. Nationwide, the number of new confirmed cases has topped 40,000 per day after falling below 25,000 earlier this summer, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

When COVID-19 cases rise in different areas of the country, United sees an “ebb and flow” in demand for those destinations, Gupta said.

“We will be flexible in moving capacity where we see demand shift,” he said.

Companies that banned business travel in the early days of the pandemic are also starting to relax their travel policies, though large corporations have been slower to resume flying than small and medium-sized businesses, Gupta said.

International flying has been slower to come back, in part because many countries are still restricting travel. European nations have started to open their borders to nonessential travelers from some countries, but not the U.S.

In August, United plans to fly 25% of the international flights it operated the same month last year, up from 16% scheduled for July. That includes new flights between Chicago and Brussels, Belgium; Frankfurt, Germany; Cancun and Mexico City in Mexico; and Quebec City, Canada.

Nearly half of United’s international passengers in May were under 35, and more of them were traveling one-way than usual, suggesting they were returning home after studying or working abroad, said Patrick Quayle, United’s vice president of International Network and Alliances.

United also extended a waiver on change fees for new flights booked through July 31.

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