United Airlines is reinstalling six seats on its Embraer 175s jets, the latest signal that air travel demand is recovering.
The Chicago-based carrier will begin placing the seats back on its E175s on Friday with a target of completing the work by June, United told staff in an internal communiqué on Tuesday viewed by Airline Weekly and confirmed by an airline spokesperson. Once complete, the the most common aircraft in the United Express fleet will once again seat 76 passengers as they did prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
United removed the six seats from all 190 of its E175s — the equivalent to parking seven Boeing 737 jets — during the worst of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020. The move was the result of scope limits in its contract with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) that limited the number of 76-seat aircraft that affiliates could fly under a reduced mainline schedule.
Although small in isolation, the reinstallation of the six seats has an outsized significance on the recovery. United was barred from putting the seats back until it met certain schedule thresholds, something that management has made clear would not occur until demand recovered. The memo suggests that the carrier has reached that threshold with plans to resume selling the 76-seat E175 configuration from Friday. The airline plans to fly roughly 60 percent of its 2019 system schedule that month, or 67 percent of its domestic schedule.
More seats to sell also means a quicker ramp to profitability. For example, Delta Air Lines executives have said that its middle seat block on all flights — admittedly a much larger number of seats than those removed at United — cost it roughly $100 million to $150 million in revenue in March. The Atlanta-based carrier expects a significant revenue boost by resuming sales of those seats from May 1. United can likely expect a similar benefit as it resumes selling the missing seats on its E175s.
U.S. airlines are eagerly looking towards summer for the next phase of the Covid-19 recovery. Domestic leisure bookings are at or near 2019 levels and fares — especially during peak travel periods like July 4th to popular destinations — are also nearing pre-crisis levels. The big caveat being business flyers and long-haul international travel remain largely missing from the recovery.
One point of optimism is the possibility of a U.S.-UK travel corridor and the reopening of Europe to vaccinated Americans. United has reported that it saw searches for travel to Europe jump 19 percent following comments by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Never mind the fact nothing is set in stone and Covid-19 has proven itself to be a worthy adversary of the best laid plans.
American Airlines, Delta and United, plus their European partners, all stand to benefit from a reopening of travel across the North Atlantic.
For United, the reinstallation of seats on its E175s and the possibility of some long-haul travel coming back are the latest in an increasing number of indicators to be optimistic about this summer.