United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby on “Face the Nation,” July 11, 2021

The following is a transcript of an interview with United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby that aired on Sunday, July 11, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”


JOHN DICKERSON: As pandemic restrictions ease demand for travel, this summer has risen and airlines are struggling to keep up. We want to go now to the CEO of United Airlines, Scott Kirby in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Good morning.

UNITED AIRLINES CEO SCOTT KIRBY: Good morning John.

JOHN DICKERSON: Let’s start with the way you see it, there was some strong travel and a couple of the days during the July 4th holiday, almost to pre 2019 pandemic levels. What does it look like to you?

KIRBY: So we see a huge desire for people to get back out, reunite with friends and family and connect with the world, and that leisure demand is more than one hundred percent recovered. Lots of pent up demand demonstrates the human desire to reconnect. Business demand is still off 60%. And, of course, a lot of international borders are still closed and long haul market. So we’re back to 100%, but we’re certainly headed in the right direction.

JOHN DICKERSON: And what’s your timeline for getting back to what, for lack of a better word, we’ll call normal?

KIRBY: Yeah, well, I don’t think anything will be normal on the other side of this, but we expect that business demand is really going to pick up in September as most of these schools are back in. A lot of people are back in offices, but we don’t think it really recovers in full until 2023. Europe, we expect to be as soon as the borders are open. That will come back largely in full. Probably next summer will be the biggest year in history for Europe. And Asia is probably another 18 to 24 months away. It’s going to take a little longer to get Asia.

JOHN DICKERSON” But when you say as soon as the borders open, that that’s a complicated business. It’s hard to American citizens can travel to Europe, but it’s not so easy going the other way. What- what are your expectations about when that gets sorted out? And let me just piggyback onto that. Secretary of Treasury- Treasury Secretary Yellen said today that she’s very worried that the Delta variant could cripple the global recovery that’s happening.

KIRBY: So first, the good news is in Europe, the statistics look very much like the United States, both in terms of vaccinations, case rates. The Delta- Delta variant was 52% in the United States last year- or last week. So it’s here. I think what’s going to happen with this, though, is that all the evidence says that the vaccines are effective at least preventing severe infection and hospitalizations or deaths from the Delta variant. And so we’re going to continue to be on this road to recovery. We’ll probably have to get booster shots. I think you guys talked about it in the previous hour. That’s going to be a normal part of life. This is going to be, I suspect, a lot like the comic book where we get a booster shot every year. And it just- it’s endemic in society.

JOHN DICKERSON: But in terms of what you see for travel, when one of the masks is going to come off in the planes, when are people going to stop worrying in the way that really, you know, it affects people at their fingertips in the airline travel business? When do you think that clears up?

KIRBY: Yeah, well, one of the great things about flying on an airplane is it’s literally if you’re going to be indoors with other people, it’s the safest place to be, particularly because the air filtration on the airplane. My guess is that the current government order expires on September 13th And fingers crossed, my guess is it will expire on September 13th, but we’ll wait and see for sure.

JOHN DICKEROSN: Let me ask you about jobs. What is the economic picture look like for- for employees. And in the airline industry, there’s relies on a lot of contractors. Some of the reports of this heavy travel have been pretty bumpy. People like to complain about travel. They’ve been complaining even more. What are some of the biggest obstacles in terms of bringing back jobs and then also just being able to find enough people to fill the jobs that are necessary for smooth travel?

KIRBY: Well, for an airline like United Airlines, we don’t have a lot of problems hiring for our jobs because their careers people can once to get to the top of the union pay scale make 6 digit incomes. So those are the kinds of really attractive jobs that we can hire for. We also negotiated the only U.S. airline with our pilots union to keep our pilots all employed. So we haven’t had some of those crew shortages that others. But there is infrastructure around the airports, the contractors, the- all the vendors that support everything in aviation, even if they are TSA security screeners and they’ve done a heroic job on coming back up quickly. But it’s been so fast, the recovery has been so rapid that there certainly are some- there’s some rust and some strains of the system.

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you about climate change. We’ve had another week of extreme weather, and I know you’ve made some commitments to changing the footprint of United Airlines. But let me ask you another question, which is climate, climateis changing the way we travel, more delays. It’s actually changing the way the planes fly. How do you have to think through in business the effects of climate change on the airline industry?

KIRBY: Well first, solving climate change is the most important problem for our generation. I believe that personally and United Airlines is doing all kinds of things that are innovative and are the only one to do it. It is impacting our business. I mean, hurricane last week, the first hurricane and the earliest I can ever remember hurricanes, the number of thunderstorm thunderstorm activity. As there’s more heat in the atmosphere, more thunderstorms is making it harder and harder. So what we have to do as an aviation industry at United Airlines is get better at dealing with bad weather because we are going to have more weather extremes.

JOHN DICKERSON: But that sounds easier than I mean- get better at bad weather. I mean, that’s sounds like a lot of people being stuck in airports waiting for planes to start to fly again.

KIRBY: Yeah, it’s really- it is. It’s much more difficult. We are working on technology to do things like keep the ramp open. That’s one of the biggest things that shuts down airports. If there’s a lightning strike within 5 miles of the airport, it’s closed for 30 minutes and trying to figure out ways that we can keep the ramp open as an example to fly when there is weather in the vicinity, but it’s not as bad.

JOHN DICKERSON:  Let me ask you as a final question. You’re the leader of an organization where tens of thousands of people who are working in it and a lot of leaders are finding that the world is different as they come back. People have different views about the nature of work in their lives. How do you see that as a leader in terms of what people are feeling and what work is going to be like after the pandemic?

KIRBY: Well, look at United Airlines in particular, going through the pandemic, I think, strengthened our culture and the sense of the role that we play in the global humanitarian response early in the crisis. Only people on our airplanes were medical professionals coming into New York carrying equipment, ventilators and such, back from Asia, carrying ventilators and oxygen canisters to India. So I think it sort of strengthened our esprit de corps and realized that what we do is more than just flying airplanes. It’s really in a crisis. It’s even more significant and important.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right, Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, thanks so much for being with us. And we’ll be back in a moment.