United Airlines' average occupancy rate is expected to fall to about 45 percent in July, as the company anticipates less than 15 percent of its flights will operate with more than 70 percent of seats filled while the airline limits the number of passengers in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
The airline switched to a larger plane 66 times per day in May and June for a total of more than 4,000 flights with increased space on board. In May, United's average occupancy rate was 38 percent while in June the average occupancy rate climbed to 57 percent.
"We expect that air travel is not likely to get back to normal until we're closer to a widely administered vaccine – so we're in this for the long haul," United CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement. "And I am going to keep encouraging our team to explore and implement new ideas, new technologies, new policies and new procedures that better protect our customers and employees."
When United flights have less passengers on board, the airline's advanced automated seating tool assigns seats to maximize distance between customers.
The company also contacts customers via email or through the United app as much as 24 hours in advance to allow customers to change their flight options at no additional cost if a flight is expected to be more than 70 percent full. In addition, customers are given the option to cancel their flight and receive a credit for future travel.
United said that to date the overwhelming majority of customers have chosen to keep their travel plans the same.
According to Transportation Security Agency checkpoint data, the number of people flying in the U.S. from last week, July 13-19, fell 4.4% compared to the previous week, the first decline since April.
On July 19, 747,422 Americans traveled compared to more than 2.7 million on the same day the previous year.
In order to protect its customers during a flight, United disinfects surfaces prior to passengers boarding, requires all passengers and flight attendants to wear facial coverings, reduces contact between flight attendants and customers, and deplanes passengers in groups to reduce crowding. The company added that beginning July 27, United flights will be equipped with a HEPA filtration system to reduce 99.97% of particles in the air.
The company also has implemented temperature checks, sneeze guards, and social distancing floor decals, and touchless check-in. At the gate, the airline disinfects all surfaces, provides hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, allows customers to self-scan boarding passes, and boards fewer customers at a time.
United stock closed at $32.33 per share at the end of Monday's trading session, falling more than 4.5 percent.