United Airlines Holdings Inc. is looking ahead to a time when international profits are more lucrative than in the past even as numerous national borders remain closed more than 18 months into an unprecedented pandemic.
The airline is focusing all of its expansion next year outside the U.S., with plans to boost international capacity by 10% mostly by adding new routes and frequencies to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Growth in the U.S., which United described as imbalanced in terms of seat supply and demand, is expected to be flat.
“We expect the Atlantic and the Pacific to significantly outperform the domestic market for many years to come, which will turn our current geographic disadvantage during Covid into a sustainable long-term advantage for United’s global network,” Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby said Wednesday on a call with analysts.
Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer, said United has a “structural advantage” over other airlines due to its strong presence in international gateway cities such as New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. “In some respects we’re uniquely able to do it as a U.S. flag carrier and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
United has the largest international footprint of the Big Four U.S. airlines, and the smallest domestically. The company said traffic across the Atlantic and Pacific remains more than 20% below 2019 levels, while domestic U.S. and Latin American travel has returned to 70%-90% of prior traffic.
The Chicago-based airline is likely to become the biggest carrier globally in the wake of the pandemic, Kirby said last month in remarks at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in Maryland.