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United on largest international route expansion ever, travel recovery

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CNBC's Phil LeBeau sits down with Patrick Quayle, United Airlines’ vice president of international network and alliances, to discuss the company's recently expanded international routes. For access to live and exclusive video from CNBC subscribe to CNBC PRO:

United Airlines plans to add 10 new trans-Atlantic routes in 2022, a bet that cooped up U.S. customers will race to get out of the country to visit Norwegian fjords, Jordan’s archeological sites or the Canary Islands after international travel was largely on pause since the pandemic began.

The additions include five new destinations: three-times-a-week service to Amman, Jordan from Washington, D.C. on May 5 with a Boeing 787-8 and from Newark Liberty International Airport, Bergen, Norway on May 5 with a Boeing 757-200, Palma de Mallorca in Spain on June 2 with a 767-300ER and Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands on June 9 on a 757-200. It’s also added daily flights to Ponta Delgada in Portugal’s Azores on May 13, using a Boeing 737 Max.

“We want to return to travel being fun,” Patrick Quayle, United’s senior vice president of international network and alliances, said on a call with reporters.

International travel, and trans-Atlantic in particular, has been a pillar of large U.S. carriers’ service but was derailed by the pandemic and accompanying travel restrictions, which are beginning to ease.

United’s trans-Atlantic service brought in just $585 million in the second quarter, about 10% of its revenue, down from nearly $2.1 billion compared with 2021, when it was 18% of its sales.

United and other carriers have focused on domestic travel, particularly for beach and other outdoor destinations, which was more resilient than international and surged after vaccines became widely available this spring and case counts dropped. Delta and American used some of their largest jetliners for domestic routes with international demand depressed.

Carriers have pounced on new destinations in Europe but executives don’t expect demand to return in full until the Biden administration lifts restrictions on visitors to the U.S. from Europe and elsewhere, which it says it will do in early November.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said on a quarterly call on Wednesday that bookings surged sixfold after the Biden administration announced it would replace travel bans with vaccine requirements that would allow visitors from Europe into the U.S. again.

United is also adding other European routes including between Denver and Munich, Chicago and Milan, Washington D.C. and Berlin. Routes it had to put on hold during the pandemic will also launch, like San Francisco to Bangalore on May 26 and Newark and Nice, France on April 29.

United won’t fly previous routes from Newark to Manchester, Newark to Glasgow and San Francisco to Dublin, Quayle said.

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