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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