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Summer travel could be extra chaotic as United pilots take unpaid leave and Boeing issues pile up

Shubhangi Goel   

Summer travel could be extra chaotic as United pilots take unpaid leave and Boeing issues pile up
  • United Airlines has asked its pilots to take unpaid leave this summer and possibly into the fall.
  • Across airlines, summer fliers may see disrupted flight schedules and pricier tickets.

In an early blow to summer travel, United Airlines has asked its pilots to take an unpaid leave next month, citing delayed aircraft deliveries from Boeing.

In a statement to CNBC, United confirmed the "voluntary, unpaid time off."

In a note sent to pilots on Friday, the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association wrote that the union expects the airline to extend the unpaid leave offer into this summer "and potentially into the fall."

United employed 13,831 pilots in 2022, per the company's most recent data.

The union note on Friday said flight forecasts have been "significantly reduced" due to changes to United's Boeing 787 and 737 deliveries and that the airline expects the issues to impact other fleets.

This summer was scheduled to be United's busiest in a decade. In January, the company said it would add over 100 daily departures from American hubs and announced its largest trans-Atlantic schedule.

The specific changes to United's summer flight lineup were not immediately available. The company did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider sent outside normal business hours.

Boeing's troubles could hurt other airlines' passengers this summer. Fliers may see rescheduled flights as airlines pull planes out of service and revamp schedules to account for new plane delays. Prices may go up, too: the CEO of Ryanair, which only flies Boeing 737s, said last month that ticket prices may rise 10% because the company won't have all the planes it ordered on time.

Summer is one of the busiest periods for American carriers. June 2023 saw an average of 2.56 million passengers per day passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, making it the busiest month at US airports since July 2019.

Boeing's ills hit airlines across the world

United and other airlines, including Southwest Airlines and Ryanair, are scrambling to work with reduced deliveries from Boeing, as the US plane manufacturer focuses on fixing safety lapses after the January 5 flight Alaska Airlines door blowout accident. Boeing's 737 planes are most commonly used on domestic routes.

"It's a simple matter of supply and demand," aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia told BI last month. "With new aircraft production heavily constrained, especially at Boeing, and a limited number of older aircraft that can be kept longer in service, and continued very strong demand, prices are likely to increase."

Scott Kirby, the CEO of United, has been vocal about his frustrations with Boeing and in January said he is looking to change the planes the company orders in the future. New planes could alleviate United's problems in future years, but they would not be delivered in time for this summer's travel rush.

The Boeing plane delay comes amid turmoil for United's operations. Last week, the US Federal Aviation Administration said it was increasing scrutiny of United to ensure the airline's compliance with safety regulations. The oversight follows a series of safety incidents in the last month alone, including an overflowing toilet on a flight from Frankfurt, a missing external panel in a plane that landed in Oregon, and a tire lost after takeoff on a flight from San Francisco to Japan.

Last month, over 1,000 flights were delayed or cancelled from a combination of weather, technology issues, and airspace constraints — disrupting spring break travel plans around the US.

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