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4 Things That Stood Out On United’s Earnings Call

Date: July 21, 2021

By David Slotnick, The Points Guy

United Airlines held its second-quarter earnings call on Tuesday, part of a quarterly routine carried out by publicly traded companies. During the call, executives typically describe their company’s performance for the previous quarter before answering questions from financial analysts.

As with Delta, which held its call last week, the tone of United’s calls have shifted since the pandemic began. Now, with travel rebounding, the airline’s leadership sounded almost jubilant while reporting what they expect to be their last quarter without a profit.

A few interesting things stood out during United’s call. Here are four takeaways.

United is taking a victory lap — and it’s informing the airline’s positioning going forward

For more than a year now, United executives have started virtually every briefing by bragging about its proactivity through the pandemic, whether reminding investors that it was the first airline to begin drawing down certain schedules in the early days, or the first to implement a new cleaning protocol.

Today, as the airline industry appears set to emerge from the pandemic, executives appeared almost elated.

“No airline has been more willing to candidly acknowledge the risk and challenges posed by COVID-19, and importantly, no airline has been quicker to aggressively confront them,” United CEO Scott Kirby said.

“We’ve worked hard to protect that operational flexibility,” Kirby added. “In fact, it’s part of why we haven’t had the same mass crew cancellation challenges that our competitors have faced as we’ve ramped [up] our schedule over the last couple of months.”

Now, Kirby thinks the airline industry is in full recovery mode.

“We don’t just see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kirby said. “We’re exiting the tunnel.”

Kirby said that as the recovery continues globally, United is in a good position to take advantage of returning demand — particularly on the international front.

“Our decision, which stands alone among large network carriers, not to retire wide-body aircraft means that we’re ready to capture the pent-up demand for long haul international travel.”

The Delta variant has not directly affected the airline industry’s recovery — yet

The Delta variant is obviously one of the biggest concerns for the travel industry, so Kirby decided to address the elephant in the room by leading off the call with a quick briefing on it.

“We haven’t seen any impact at all on bookings, which continue to get stronger week after week,” Kirby said. “We think the most likely outcome is that the continued recovery in demand continues unabated.”

Kirby cited research showing that the vaccines are all largely effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death in the case of all known variants. He also pointed to surveys showing that 84% of the airline’s MileagePlus members are vaccinated.

“And so while we expect case counts to rise, given the vaccination rates, they will still remain well below the peak, and hospitalizations and deaths will not rise nearly as much,” he said. “That leads to the logical outcome that the reopening continues on track.”

“It’s possible we have a temporary pullback in the reopening,” Kirby conceded. “But given the data [and] science around vaccines, that seems like a lower probability outcome.”

United expects to be A bigger airline after the pandemic than it was before

United is planning for a big 2022.

By next year, the airline will be bigger than it was before the crisis, United executives predicted.

“We expect 2022 capacity to be higher than in 2019,” chief financial officer Gerry Laderman said during the call.

Notably, a lot of that capacity will look different than it did in 2019.

Asia was the first region to be impacted by COVID and continues to be the slowest to recover, with the largest number of border restrictions,” United chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella said. “It will likely be 2023, at least until we see a normal schedule to Asia.”

That leaves the airline open to deploy its aircraft elsewhere, capitalizing on demand where it exists and where restrictions allow travelers to go.

“Our global network already includes new service to India and Africa to compensate for reduced Asian flying,” Nocella added.

Nocella also noted that the airline has already seen robust demand to European countries that have reopened, and expects demand to surge next year as the reopening continues.

“We think the summer of 2022 across the Atlantic has the potential to be our best season ever.”

Business travel continues to return — and United expects that to speed up over the coming months.

During Delta’s earnings call last week, CEO Ed Bastian told investors that business travel was returning faster than the airline expected it to.

“We are starting to see signs of a resurgence of business and international travel, both of which are supporting the next leg of the revenue recovery,” Bastian said, adding that 95% of Delta’s corporate accounts have booked travel in recent months. The airline saw corporate travel recover to 40% of 2019 levels in June.

United has seen the same trend.

“Business travel, which was down over 90% versus 2019 for most of Q2, has inflicted sharply in June and is currently down about 60% versus pre-pandemic levels,” Nocella said.

Nocella added that the airline expects to see two additional inflection points for business travel in future months: first, the end of summer and the return of children to school, and second, the start of the new budget cycle in January.

Overall, United is forecasting that business travel will reach 55-60% of 2019 levels by the end of the third quarter.

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