Why United Can’t Use Its Own 757s to Fly to Europe

It was just announced that the new United will start flying 757s from Washington to Europe for the first time when it adds a second daily flight to Paris. This has a lot of people wondering why United never bothered doing this before. After all, pre-merger United had around 100 of those airplanes and never flew them over the Atlantic. It’s actually because not all 757s are created the same, and United simply didn’t want to invest in making its airplanes worthy of flying across the Pond. With Continental management in charge, this will certainly change.

United vs Continental 757

The new plan has a Continental 757 starting that second daily Dulles-Paris flight on June 9. During the leaner off-peak season, the Washington-Amsterdam flight will become a 757 (Sep 1) and the first daily flight to Paris will also go on a 757 (Sep 29). Some United widebodies will move up to Newark for a couple flights to balance things out. Pre-merger United passengers are probably dreading this move, but they shouldn’t. The onboard experience on a Continental 757 is nothing like a United 757.

By this summer, every Continental 757 will have the same flat beds in business class that Continental is installing on its widebody fleet. There will be 16 of those and 159 coach seats, all of which have full audio/video on demand and power ports that don’t require an adapter. In other words, the seat experience on these airplanes is better than what you’ll find on United except for the lack of Economy Plus.

The 757 is a great airplane for the North Atlantic for a couple reasons. First, it allows airlines to fly more frequently between cities that can’t support multiple flights on a widebody. Washington to Paris is a perfect example. Right now, that’s flown once a day with a 777 that has (or will have once the flat beds are installed) 48 Business and First class seats along with 221 in coach. Now, the airline will be able to run two 757s which combined have 32 Business and 318 seats in coach. This is great for markets with less premium cabin demand that could potentially be boosted by having more frequency. In this case, it helps to compete with Air France’s double daily flights.

Second, this airplane is great for opening up markets that don’t have enough demand to support even one widebody. Continental has been able to fly routes like Newark to Hamburg because of this airplane.

So why didn’t United bother doing this before? The answer? It was too cheap to do it. Maybe that’s not fair. I’m sure somebody did a cost-benefit analysis. They just came to different conclusions than the Continental folks. Here’s the difference.

Aircraft Maximum Takeoff Weight
Continental ordered its 757s with a maximum takeoff weight of 255,000 pounds while United’s are only 240,000. Why does this matter? Because Continental can pack on an additional 15,000 pounds of fuel over a United airplane with a similar passenger load. And you need that fuel to get across the Pond. Could United have changed this? Yes. It’s my understanding that a higher weight is a paperwork issue. They would have had to pay to have the plane re-certified but that’s all they’d have to do. There’s another cost here. Airports base landing fees on max takeoff weight, so better need that extra weight if you’re going to bother having it.

Engine Thrust
Continental has Rolls Royce RB211-535 engines with 42,540 pounds of thrust. United has Pratt & Whitney PW2037 engines on its birds with 37,000 pounds of thrust. More thrust is a good thing, and United doesn’t have it. Now, United could upgrade its engines to PW2040 or PW2043 engines with more thrust with ease, but it chose not to do so. Again, the airline didn’t want to pay for what’s an easy technical upgrade.

Crew Rest
This might be the stickiest area. FAA rules require a relief pilot on flights over 8 hours and the westbound flights tend to be over that amount thanks to headwinds. But each airline has a different contract with its pilots stating what facilities are required for crew rest. For Continental, I believe it’s just a blocked biz class seat on a 757 for pilots. Flight attendants also have their own requirements. United’s union contracts tend to provide more, but I don’t believe the 757 is addressed directly right now. So, there would have to be some negotiation on what a rest facility on the 757 would look like, and it’s unclear how difficult that may or may not be. This will undoubtedly be one of the areas of discussion on the new combined pilot contract.

So that’s why United’s 757s don’t fly over the Pond and Continental’s do. I would assume we’re going to see more of this from Washington as time goes by because it’s something that Continental has used very successfully from Newark over the years.

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