What’s the Matter with Denver? (Or, why is United canceling the London Flight?)

It looks like United has decided that its seasonal flight from Denver to London will be seasonal no more . . . in a bad way. The flight won’t be coming back this summer, and instead the airline will use that Heathrow slot for a fourth daily trip to Washington/Dulles. I know a lot of people are shaking their heads wondering why United would choose to add yet another flight to Washington instead of sticking it out in Denver, but there are some good reasons, some more obvious than others.

Denver London Flight Fight

The Impact of Demand
When it comes to domestic flying, travelers care primarily about price and schedule. If an airline has frequent flights in a market, it’s going to punch above its weight, so to speak. But when you start talking about long haul flying, the equation changes. Most people become less time sensitive and the nonstop isn’t quite as important.

For a 1 hour flight, you want to see flights going hourly all day long. For a five hour flight, you’d like to see flights going at least 4 or 5 times a day. And for a 10 hour flight, well, the schedule doesn’t matter nearly as much. When you’re traveling that far and changing so many time zones, you just expect to have a long travel day.

If we look at the Denver-London flight, it originally left Denver at 655p and arrived London at 1050a. Now, if you want to fly United, you’ll have to leave at 355p, go through Washington and arrive at 1010a. Sure, it causes you to lose some time but it’s really only about 2.5 hours. In the scheme of things, that doesn’t matter that much.

So there are viable connecting options on United and that’s likely to keep most of the United fliers happy enough that they won’t leave. The only better option is the British Airways nonstop, but if you’re tied to Mileage Plus and Star Alliance, you probably won’t be defecting. American miles don’t do much for you if you live in Denver.

On top of that, many of the people who would connect through Denver can either go through San Francisco or LA in the west along with Chicago and Washington in the east. Sure, some of the smaller mountain towns won’t have one stop service anymore, but there’s not huge demand for that.

So on the demand side, while travelers would like to have a nonstop, United isn’t going to lose a ton by not having it. Could it gain in the way of higher fares? Sure, that’s possible, but that also doesn’t mean it’s the best use of that airplane.

The Trade-off
The issue is figuring out if there’s a better way to use that airplane and that slot. For United, the opportunity to put another flight in Washington for a total of 4 daily makes sense. There is a lot more demand for flights to London from Washington than there is from Denver, but that’s not all. The shorter flight time from the East Coast to London means people are somewhat more time sensitive. For example, there is a morning flight that goes to London as well as three at different times in the evening, and that makes a difference when the flight time is only 6 hours and you have 2 fewer time zones to cross.

United also faces stiffer competition in Washington. Besides BA’s three daily flights there, Virgin Atlantic has one as well. While BA and Virgin both have flights leaving at 640p, United can now bracket its current 6p flight with one at 7p. It makes for a very compelling schedule and it allows United to spread thing out for better connecting opportunities as well.

Best and Highest Use
Another thing to consider here is aircraft. United was using a 777 on the flight from Denver, but it can use a 767 from Washington. That frees the 777 to fly longer, more profitable missions. Then again, maybe United will pull it out of service to refit the seats to the new standard. Either way, the 767 probably makes for a better match with demand in Washington and freeing up a 777 is a big deal. They don’t just grow on trees.

In the end, my guess is that Denver-London did ok in the summer but not “ok” enough. United doesn’t risk losing a lot of demand because of the connecting opportunities, so it might as well move the fleet around to where it can be more profitable. My guess is that the 787 will make Denver-London look a lot more compelling when it finally gets delivered. But until then, there are better ways to use the airplanes in the fleet. You may not like it in Denver, but it does make a lot of sense.

[Original photos via Wikimedia Commons users Janusz J. and AgnosticPreachersKid/CC-BY-SA-3.0]

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