Kirby made the remarks during a call with analysts and reporters that was billed as a discussion of his company’s fourth-quarter financial results. He struck a contrarian tone. Most airline executives rarely take public shots at their competitors. And they are unfailingly optimistic, often treating massive flight disruptions and other setbacks as freak events caused by Mother Nature or some other factor beyond their control.
Not surprisingly, Kirby said United is taking a different approach. He said it has invested in technology, has more employees per flight than before the pandemic, keeps more spare planes and isn't pushing the schedule too hard. However, those steps have raised United's cost to fly one mile, not counting fuel, about 15% above 2019's level.
United's rate of canceled flights last year was slightly better than most rivals but not the best. Among the six largest U.S. airlines, Delta canceled 1.4% of its scheduled flights in 2022 while United dropped 2.0%, Alaska 2.4%, American 2.5%, Southwest 3.0% and JetBlue 3.1%, according to tracking service FlightAware.
All of those airlines faced another obstacle last week. More than 1,300 U.S. flights were canceled and 11,000 delayed on a single day after an FAA system that alerts pilots to safety issues broke down, temporarily halting all takeoffs.
Like Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian and American Airlines CEO Robert Isom, Kirby defended the FAA but said Congress doesn’t give the agency enough money to keep up with its growing workload, which now includes monitoring drones and rocket launches and stepping up its scrutiny of operators after two Boeing 737 Max tragedies in 2018 and 2019.
After the stock market closed Tuesday, Chicago-based United reported a profit of $843 million for the fourth quarter and predicted that 2023 earnings will easily top Wall Street forecasts. Still, shares of United Airlines Holdings Group Inc. lost 4.6% on Wednesday while most of its rivals fell by smaller amounts and Delta eked out a narrow gain.