United Airlines expects to fly 20% more seats with bigger jets out of Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field this summer compared with last, given strong local demand.
United has seen a 26% year-over-year growth at Clinton National, and United is the airport's second-fastest-growing airline. There are nine daily round-trip flights to Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Denver International Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and may add an additional flight to Houston this fall.
Chief Operating Officer Torbjorn "Toby" Enqvist who came to Arkansas from Stockholm in 1990 to study at Ouachita Baptist University, later earning a master's degree from the Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business in Dallas, unveiled the plans at the Rotary Club of Little Rock's Tuesday meeting.
United flies 4,500 flights a day to 300 destinations on five continents; Enqvist noted that the work never stops, given international time changes. High summer and the holiday season, when other industries slow down, are the busiest times for the travel industry.
Enqvist said 9/11 had been the airline industry's benchmark for disaster contingency planning -- not a years-long global pandemic, during which the United was losing up to $150 million a day. Normally, United carries around 450,000 customers a day; on a Tuesday in April 2021, the airline carried 9,800 people.
Demand has surged back. Enqvist said last year was the busiest year in terms of flights to Europe and that the demand has increased this year.
This comes as the federal government debates new rules for the airline industry.
On May 8, the Biden administration announced a proposal for new Department of Transportation regulations that will require airlines to compensate air travelers and cover their meals and hotel rooms if they are stranded for reasons within the airline's control, the Associated Press reported.
The compensation would be in addition to ticket refunds when the airline is at fault for a flight being canceled or significantly delayed. It would give consumers in the United States protections similar to those in the European Union.
"I know how frustrated many of you are with the service you get from your U.S. airlines," Biden said. "That's why our top priority has been to get American air travelers a better deal."
Biden added, "You deserve more than just getting the price of your ticket [refunded] -- you deserve to be fully compensated. Your time matters, the impact on your life matters."
Enqvist said he dislikes the proposal, using recent stationary thunderstorms over Houston that have disrupted air travel in the city as an example.
"Whose fault is that?" he asked. "We fly out of Houston, on a normal day, 50,000 people. There's about, maybe, 1,500 hotel rooms around the airport. If they make this rule, how do we decide, of the 50,000 people, who gets to 1,500 hotel rooms? We'd have to pay for them.
"I think what you will see is, maybe, people starting to make their own decisions and not be safe. There's a reason you don't fly through thunderstorms," Enqvist said. "I feel like the government should be there to support and put certain parameters around to protect customers, but they shouldn't really get involved in private business."
Instead, Enqvist suggested that the government seek to hire more air traffic controllers and update associated technology. He said that profession has 3,000 vacancies; Forbes has reported that there are 10% fewer controllers now than there were a decade ago, and, while the pandemic halted controller training, the shortage preceded the covid-19 outbreak.
There is also the pilot shortage amid fast-increasing passenger demand, which occurred in part because so many pilots took early retirement offers early in the pandemic when the travel and hospitality industries struggled.
Becoming a pilot takes significant training and hundreds of hours of flight time. Enqvist said in a given year, 6,500 to 7,000 pilots get their license in the United States. Should the industry meet its growth plans, he said there will be a demand for 14,000 to 15,000 pilots a year for the next five years.
"That's the crux," he said. Most pilots want to work long-distance or international flights, because they pay better. This disadvantages regional services, like those that fly out of Little Rock, which fewer pilots want to fly. Because so many top-tier pilots retired during the recession, United faces a shortage all around, though pilots starting on regional routes can work their way up to longer ones.
Though Enqvist acknowledged different opinions as to how long it will take for the shortage to rectify, he personally estimates three to six years. He noted that United owns its own flight academy, which is helping the company amid the shortage.
While United has cut service at 39 destinations since the pandemic began -- including Texarkana, which saw five months of flights to Houston last year before the airline ended them because of, the Texarkana Gazette reported, "a lack of market demand and stagnant passenger bookings" -- Enqvist expressed demand out of Little Rock has been strong, hence the potential for another daily service to Houston.