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United Airlines to triple flights in August, but watching COVID-19 spikes

(Reuters) - United Airlines UAL.O is adding nearly 25,000 domestic and international flights in August, tripling the number it flew in June, while standing ready to shift plans if recent spikes in COVID-19 cases hurt demand, executives said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: A United Airlines passenger jet taxis at Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey, U.S. December 6, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo

Air travel demand, which rose steadily in May and June from pandemic-linked lows in April, “has flattened out over the past week or so,” Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of Domestic Network Planning, told journalists.

United expects the ebbs and flows of air traffic to continue over the next month, but has based its August schedule on demand in the market.

That takes into account travel restrictions, including a European Union ban on travel by Americans, said Patrick Quayle, who oversees United’s international network planning.

Chicago-based United is adding 300 daily flights from its U.S. hubs in August, including doubling the number of flights from the New York area compared to July, mainly to beach and outdoor destinations where people can maintain a social distance to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The domestic flight schedule is still only 48% of what it was in August 2019.

The airline is adding 47 international destinations, including Tahiti and Latin America, where it expects borders to re-open, and across the Atlantic, where Quayle highlighted demand from European passport holders and to business centers like London and Frankfurt.

Still, much of the traffic is one-way and by people under the age of 35, likely student returning from study abroad programs, he said.

United has faced criticism from lawmakers for selling its planes to capacity, rather than blocking middle seats like peers such as Delta Air Lines DAL.N.

Blocking middle seats is a “PR strategy, not a safety strategy,” Chief Communications Officer Josh Earnest said, adding that face masks, together with other safety measures the airline has implemented, continue to be the best way to prevent the spread of the virus.

U.S. airlines shares rose on Wednesday after promising early results on a COVID-19 vaccine by BioNTech BNTX.O and U.S. Pfizer PFE.N.

Reporting by Sanjana Shivdas in Bengaluru and Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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