The 787 is Helping United Shrink Los Angeles And Grow San Francisco

There’s been plenty of talk about how the 787 is going to provide all kinds of opportunity for airlines to do new and cool things, but if you want to see it in action, look no further than United. The airline has found the 787 to be versatile enough that it is ideal for shrinking its Los Angeles operation while also expanding its San Francisco flying. So far, these moves are both good for the airline and for travelers.

United 787-9 Wing

United still has two hubs on the West Coast, though many are right to question whether Los Angeles still counts. San Francisco is the big one, and United absolutely dominates there. The 787 is helping to significantly expand the airline’s presence, making it an even more attractive hub. But first, let’s talk about that Los Angeles operation.

Los Angeles
United used to be the most dominant carrier in Los Angeles, but American and Delta have been making Los Angeles a priority while United has been more about the status quo. I suppose at least one airline should be rational here, though it’s strange that it’s United.

United’s long-haul operation in LA has three pillars – London, Tokyo, and Sydney. In the last few years, we’ve seen the addition of Shanghai and Melbourne to round out the group. But as United has reorganized its network, it found it was using airplanes that were far too big on these routes.

To Sydney, United was still using its massive 747s. Only in the last year or so did United finally decide to put a 777 on the route. But next year? It goes down to a 787-9. Melbourne used to be a tag on from Sydney on those big 747s. But with smaller airplanes, the airline didn’t need to run that expensive tag anymore. Now, United has simply put another 787-9 nonstop to Melbourne.

In Japan, the Tokyo route has seen several airplanes over the years, but it has recently settled on the 787-9 as well. Shanghai started with a 777 and that was clearly too much capacity. The 787-8 went on that route very quickly, though that has now moved up to a 787-9.

And then there’s London. This legacy Pan Am route has been a 777 for awhile now, but it will also be going to a 787-9 next year.

The upshot here? United will have a single, smaller long-haul widebody type in operation from LA. That’s great for scheduling, crewing, and maintenance simplicity. It also means there’s no longer any First Class for sale on those routes. This is a right-sizing to match what United has done elsewhere in Los Angeles. Without the 787, United would have either had to continue flying airplanes that were too big or it could have canceled the routes outright. With that possibility, this seems like good news for travelers.

[UPDATE: Apparently things are changing. United has now decided to continue flying the 777 on the LAX-London route. Meanwhile, spokesperson Rahsaan Johnson gave me this statement about the rest of the 787 flying.

Boosting 787 flying at LAX is about the efficiency of the aircraft and the competitive benefits in that market. Grouping them together in LAX creates scheduling and maintenance efficiencies and maximizes the fuel benefits of the aircraft on some of the longest missions possible. As for capacity, while they have 16 fewer coach seats, the we view the 789 as essentially the same size as a 777.

So there you have it, apparently United considers capacity to be the same despite the 8 percent difference in coach.]

San Francisco
San Francisco is a different story. This is the home of the Pacific fleet, the location of most of United’s 747s. And that heft is not going to change. So while the 787 is helping United to shrink LA, it’s going to be used to help grow San Francisco.

Sure, the 787 can help better match the right-size airplane to the right route. (At some point next year, for example, the Seoul/Incheon, Sydney, Taipei, and Tokyo/Haneda flights will all drop to a 787-9.) But its primary use in San Francisco is to add new destinations.

The first hint of this was when United decided to start flying a 787-8 from SFO to Chengdu in China. That’s a long, thin route that wouldn’t have worked on another airplane. (Or even if it would have, United wouldn’t have taken that risk.) That Chengdu flight started 3 times weekly and has grown since.

But that was just a taste of what was the come. Earlier this month, United announced it would fly from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, Auckland, and Xi’an.

Xi’an is a lot like Chengdu in United’s network. It’s a 13+ hour flight that will be tried 3 times a week on the 787-8. Again, it’s a route that probably can’t work on another airplane, but with the 787, it’s at least worth trying. I imagine we’ll continue to see more of this type of growth in China.

The Auckland route is one that’s been rumored for years. United used to serve Auckland, but it’s been ages. And ever since Qantas pulled out of Auckland-LA back in 2012, Air New Zealand has been the only airline to fly between New Zealand and the mainland US. (Hawaiian flies from Honolulu.) You’d think that since United and Air New Zealand are alliance and codeshare partners, the former’s flight to San Francisco would be sufficient. But this isn’t a joint venture, and United sees real opportunity to run its own metal. I tend to agree.

Auckland will run three times weekly in the off-peak summer on a 787-8. In peak winter, it will go daily on a 787-9.

And then there’s Tel Aviv. Once American ends its Philly flight soon, there will only be nonstop options to Israel from New York (JFK and Newark), Boston, and Los Angeles. San Francisco, however, has an important tech link with Israel, and there is a fair bit of traffic in the market that would likely jump at this flight. But is there enough traffic for a 777? Eh, probably not. (And it’s too far for a 767, as is the case with all these other routes.)

So we have a tale of two cities… and one airplane. United is using the 787 to shrink in LA without abandoning it. Yet it’s finding the 787 is a great way to grow what it has in San Francisco even further.

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35 Comments on "The 787 is Helping United Shrink Los Angeles And Grow San Francisco"

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Dispatcher Mike

This post shows the versatility and the purpose of the 787. 787 was the designed to allow from Hub to smaller international cities. United is using the aircraft as it was designed. I think British Airways is doing the same with the LHR-AUS route. As soon as airlines get this aircraft and realize its purpose the sky is the limit!

David SF eastbay

UA is showing how a multi fleet type can help an airline in the long haul market, but it also shows the 747 is loosing ground in the passenger market place.


For reference the seat capacity difference between the 789 and 3-class 777 at UA is only 15-seats.
Not sure why comment like “Shanghai started with a 777 and that was clearly too much capacity.”
Both planes are almost the same in size at the end of the day, and actually premium product seat count is identical with both having 48.


I would think that LAWA are causing the shriking at LAX.

The airport is a hole compared with SFO. Having recently been through the Los Angeles Greyhound Station, I would say it was nicer than the last experience I had at LAX. LAX is now only an airport of last resort for me.


Ditto on LAX. My best flight was having less than 30 min to connect to SYD on DL this month.

Since OZ and Kiwi are on my rotation more often, I’m willing to give UA another chance if I can get to LAX or SFO w/o going through Houston from CVG. UA still flies RJ145s on that route.


The shrinking at LAX is limited to United. Delta, American and several foreign airlines are expanding there quite rapidly, so it’s clear the problem is United, not LAWA.

Doug Swalen
It will be interesting to see how United positions the A350 when that plane enters service and how that disrupts the rest of the fleet (beyond merely heralding the demise of the 747 fleet). What I’m really curious about is LH. It passed on the 787 and went with the higher capacity A350. It’s launching service to SJC next year on an A340-300 3 class configuration but will soon swap it out for a higher capacity leisure configuration. How high? Near 300. Now contrast that to BA’s announcement of 787-9 service to SJC next year. That jet will have a… Read more »
United has thirty five A350-1000s on order. And don’t forget there’s twenty five 787-10s, and ten 777-300ERs on the order book too. In total – including all 787s – there’s a hundred new long haul widebodies. There are twenty four 747s to be retired (and two leave the fleet this year), about ten of the old non-ER 777s will switch to domestic, and several of the TATL 757s will also switch to domestic. But there’s a big growth on long haul fleet wise. I’m looking at more innovative long thin routes coming, including more to Chinese regional cities. And more… Read more »
Doug Swalen

I’d sooner scrape my eyeballs out with a spoon than fly any Indian airliner.


Would you prefer Aeroflot instead? ;-)

Apparently no one wants to go to Russia in the winter, as this is the second year in a row that I have seen ~$500 R/T prices from NYC to Moscow in the winter, booking a few months out… Not bad for ~9500 statute miles R/T. Tempted to make that trip one day just to check Aeroflot off my list.

Brett, I assume it’s not THAT important, but as a layperson, a quick glance at United’s press release has me wondering about the utilization of those planes. I get that international routes require much longer turns, but some of those routes appear to require the plane to sit for 24+ hours at the foreign airport, unless it’s being sent out earlier to a different United hub (not sure how to get that kind of information, and don’t want to spend that much time on it). Maybe that is for crew scheduling reasons, so the same crew can go out and… Read more »

I would like to see more data, or a stronger argument, to support the position that UA to London, Tokyo, Sydney ex LAX cannot support paid F traffic. If that is the case, its only because UA provides an inferior product that no one will pay for given the options. Otherwise it is UA walking away from that market, as opposed to it not being there any longer.

Let’s be honest. One of the three (United, Delta, American) had to fold first in their fight over LAX. And United held the weakest hand, and since everyone knows it, they couldn’t even get away with a bluff. With Delta running a truly excellent ops at LAX and American coming on strong, who wants to put up with United? I don’t. Those few folks whose corporate contracts make them can be served by a 787, as United will do now. And if you know how United has configured the back of that bus, 13 hours on any of their 787… Read more »
That’s nonsense. United has *added* intercontinental routes ex-LAX. Okay, only one to MEL but it’s still an increment. Switching the other routes to 789 doesn’t lose many pax but increases yield. American is increasing routes too with HND and SYD although SYD is going joint venture with Qantas, and AA doesn’t have any other west coast gateway. LAX will never be a major hub for any of the U.S. carriers. There are so many airlines that fly there there’s going to be competition on almost every route. Interestingly the airline with the most transatlantic routes and joint third most long… Read more »
Doug Swalen

United is busy upgrading the terminal and lounge at LAX. You don’t do that if you’re pulling out. I think Cranky is right. UA is just doing status quo while AA and The Widget flood the zone (and eventually get burned by overcapacity and have to retrench).

Joey Jaidee
I dont want to get too inside baseball here but I will anyway. I think this would be the correct venue. The ex UAL flight attendants are getting royally screwed with these new tactics. The ex Cons fly all the 787s because, although it was pretty clear the companies were going to merge anyways, those orders were made pre merger. Its funny the combined company is is paying for these new 78’s but theres a fence anyway. Anyway i digress. If you look at the seniority of both sides at these bases its frankly shocking. LAX and SFO were historically… Read more »

The issue relates to three distinct groups all represented by AFA. The infighting between each union is unreal, petitions to oust presidents, the resignation of the Houston AFA leadership (the entire committee on the UA side), ousting the president in GUM. The three AFA groups can’t agree on anything, especially a single contract. Management has completed contracts with every major union on the property except AFA.

Joey Jaidee

Its quite possible that there might be progress as one of the main obstacles might very well be “removed”.


Great piece, Brett

Remind us what they end up doing with all the 744s after this LAX and SFO re-fleeting happens?

southbay flier

It all makes sense to me.

LAX is a competitive market and right now United has the weakest product of a major airline IMO. Why would I fly them if there are other choices (domestic and international) that are better. OTOH, SFO is a market that UA owns, so expanding out of there makes sense. Plus with no competition on most of these new routes, the airline of last resort is your only choice.

louie h
However, re: SFO vs LAX. Weatherwise I would take LAX anytime. Every time you sneeze, SFO seems to have weather problems, or runway. And flights are held in their cities for exp PSP, so when you eventually take off, you miss your one and only connection. I seldom had that problem with LAX, but it often happens with SFO. And while we are talking about it, why are there no LAX BCN or for that matter Southern Europe flights from West CCoast, (Iberia does fly LAX MAD, and AZ flies LAX FCO) BCN and FCO both are huge cruise ports,… Read more »
Billy K.

Not to mention the ridiculously high taxes/fees that people pay to transit LHR, Louie!