United Airlines CEO on Summer Travel, Masks on Planes, and Why You Need to Get to the Airport Extra Early

United CEO Scott Kirby weighs in on what is expected to be an extremely busy season for travel.

Summer travel is off to a roaring start, but high demand and staffing shortages mean vacationers may have to add a bit of extra time — and perhaps even a dash of patience — to their travel plans, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby discussed during a recent interview.

"There are staffing shortages across the whole economy that affects the [Transportation Security Administration] and others around airlines," Kirby said during an interview on CBS Mornings. "But I would get to the airport a little earlier this summer. Staffing shortages are exacerbated [when] somebody gets COVID and then everyone tests, and sick calls are higher in all businesses than they were before."

But Kirby said the airline was doing its best to improve overall communication with passengers.

"You can't avoid that there are going to be weather issues but communicating with customers, investing in the experience and the product on the airplane… it really is changing at United how customers feel when they fly," he said.

For its part, United Airlines recommends travelers arrive at the airport at least two hours before a domestic flight and at least three hours before an international flight. The airline also requires most domestic travelers who are checking a bag to check in at least 45 minutes before their departure time, while most domestic travelers who are traveling without a checked bag must check in for their flight at least 30 minutes before their departure.

The increased airport wait times come as more and more passengers are passing through TSA security checkpoints this summer. On Sunday, more than 2.35 million travelers were screened at airports across the country, according to the TSA's data, just one of 16 days so far in May where passenger numbers surpassed 2 million.

That demand doesn't appear to have been stymied by the end of the federal transportation mask mandate, which was voided by a federal judge in Florida last month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since reiterated its recommendation for Americans to wear masks on public transportation while the Department of Justice appeals the decision at the request of the CDC.

When asked about masks, Kirby said travelers are welcome to wear masks on planes — which doctors say is one of the best ways to protect individuals — but insisted planes are the "safest environment" people can be in indoors.

"It's because the airflow on airplanes was designed to recirculate every two to three minutes through HEPA-grade filters… The airplane is literally 10 times more airflow through HEPA-grade filters than a hospital ICU," Kirby said. "That's why being on an airplane next to two people in a middle seat is the equivalent of being 15 feet away from someone in a building."

The demand for summer travel may be on fire, but so are the prices. In fact, airfare prices rose more than 18% in the United States in April, the sharpest single month increase since 1963. Kirby blamed the increase in jet fuel prices.

"Jet fuel prices have almost doubled in the past couple of months. And that's really driving the price increases for airlines," he said. "We're in the recovery mode from COVID and you're trying to come out of what was the most devastating crisis in the history of aviation. We've got to get back… so we've at least got to recover the increase in jet fuel prices."

Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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