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United Airlines cutting half its flights as coronavirus slams travel

Traveling amid coronavirus: What to know
Traveling amid coronavirus: What to know 03:43

United Airlines will slash 50% of its flying capacity in April and May, while also warning the coronavirus pandemic could push the cuts into the peak summer travel season.

Bookings are plummeting and cancellations soaring as the virus continues to spread and claim more lives. United said Sunday night it expects planes to be only 20% to 30% full at best, down from nearly 90% before the virus hit.

The airline handled a million fewer passengers in the first two weeks of March than it did a year ago, and it expects March revenue to fall $1.5 billion below the year-ago pace, CEO Oscar Munoz and President Scott Kirby said in a letter to employees.

"The bad news is that it's getting worse," they wrote. "We expect both the number of customers and revenue to decline sharply in the days and weeks ahead."

United's management is talking to pilot and flight attendant unions about taking cuts in pay or hours. United and other airlines have already cut back passenger-carrying capacity.

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American Airlines announced late Saturday that it was suspending about 75% of its long-haul international flights, starting Monday and lasting through May 6, because of falling demand and U.S. government restrictions on travelers from most of Europe. American expects to cut U.S. flying by 20% in April and 30% in May.

American did not announce layoffs but plans to ground about 135 planes.

American will keep flying three international routes: Daily flights from Dallas to London and Miami to London, and three flights per week from Dallas to Tokyo. Shorter international flights to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America will continue.

Munoz said he has spent two days in Washington, D.C., exploring possible federal aid to the airline industry. The company offered no specifics on what the aid might look like.

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United and many of the world's major airlines will be bankrupt by May without government assistance, according to aviation industry consultancy CAPA Centre for Aviation.

"Cash reserves are running down quickly as fleets are grounded and what flights there are operate much less than half full," CAPA said in a statement. "Demand is drying up in ways that are completely unprecedented."

Chinese airlines, which are mostly government funded, will likely survive the impact and U.S. airlines have powerful unions that will likely push Washington to provide subsidies, CAPA said. 

Appearing on ABC's "This Week" Sunday morning, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin called the impact on the airlines and other travel industries unprecedented. He indicated that one of the next steps for the federal government is to provide assistance to travel-related industries.

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