During his keynote session at the APEX/IFSA EXPO 2021 Thought Leadership Conference, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby remained positive about the outlook for air travel despite new concerns about the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Scott Kirby, United Airlines’ CEO, has always been a strong advocate of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for its workforce, with United becoming the first carrier to instigate the requirement.
Despite its 99.7% employee vaccination rate, Kirby guessed that the advent of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 would cause a short-term decline in demand for both United and other carriers. However, he went on to say that “the [travel] peak will be at a higher level than the peak was after Delta, and things will continue this way.” He said that “Delta was two steps forward and one step back” for the industry, while Omicron will hopefully mark “three steps forward and one step back.”
Unfortunately, Kirby doesn’t believe that Omicron will spur the adoption of a single vaccine passport, which would enable a more seamless travel experience for all. “The reason it’s impossible to have a single vaccine passport is that every government around the world wants to be in charge of what happens in their country. We asked the UN to come up with a vaccine passport but it’s taking forever because of the bureaucracy.”
Kirby did concede that the fact that all WHO-approved vaccines are pretty much accepted around the world now means that the industry is “almost there.” He pointed to United’s Travel Ready Center, which allows passengers to upload a picture of their vaccine card and have it checked using artificial intelligence. “If a country changes its rules, we can quickly update the system behind the scenes to deal with that.” He equated this to United’s own version of a vaccine passport, and said that from a customer perspective it probably didn’t make sense to try to make all the world’s governments use a single one.
With this in mind, Kirby continues to be confident that business travel will return to the skies in full. “Zoom is great for transactions. I think Zoom is going to replace telephones. I’d much rather have a video conference than a telephone call. But you do not build relationships over zoom.” He added, “I’m on the road now more than I ever was in my career because I’ve come to realise I don’t need to be sitting in my office doing emails as much as I used to.”