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

LHR - London/Heathrow, United

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

  1. It doesn’t make sense that United is dropping its seasonal Denver-London flight to add a Washington-London flight. United always (for at least the last 3-4 years) adds a fourth flight on the Washington-London flight in the summer (2 – 777’s and 2 – 767’s). The Denver flight must be going somewhere else. In addition, BA also adds a 4th Washington-London flight in the summer, so there are 9 daily Washington-London flights (including Virgin) in the summer months.

    1. BA isn’t flying four flights this summer or at least it’s not loaded in the reservation systems. I don’t believe United has always flown 4 from Dulles in the summer either, though it certainly has happened in the past. Maybe someone with a bunch of old timetables can give details.

  2. Personally I think the real benefits as a DC based traveler are the return options. A 7 pm flight from Dulles vs 6 pm doesn’t really add much in the way of options or benefits if you are DC based. But having the option for an extra hour to get to and through Heathrow on the return is a big consideration, especially when you may have to depart for the airport 4 hours before your flight depending on where you are staying in London and how you are getting there.

  3. Not sure but I think the altitude and max take-off weight out of Denver may have also been an issue over the years and far as pax loads as well as cargo. I know United always flys its slots in order to maintain them. Last winter I worked Brussels/LHR flights that were basically empty but flown only to maintain the slot during off peak travel times.
    Could also be consolidation of routes to stream line the new UA/CO maximizing of LAX/SFO/ORD/IAH/EWR/IAD as our international hubs and seeing DEN and CLE shrink a bit? I did hear that DEN (DIA) was one of the larger capacity reduction cities.

    1. Weight restrictions are not as big of a deal at DEN with the 16,000ft runway open. Except for extreme hot days there shouldn’t be a problem. Additionally the flight left late enough in the day that temps are usually down significantly from the highs of the day.

      DEN (including old Stapleton) has historically not been able to support a 3 airline hub, but what do we have today… a 3 airline hub. Given that I wouldn’t be surprised to see the new UA/CO contract a bit. Hopefully not dehub, but I could see contraction as a possibility.

  4. That’s a real shame. I’ve used the LHR-DEN route a few times, as it’s a convenient alternative to other routes West (if the direct flights are over-priced, as SFO ones frequently are). It’s also a good route in terms of getting mileage fares to the West (for similar reasons). Having said that, I still fly via IAD more often that any other UA hub, so the extra flight will probably be beneficial to me eventually.

  5. Just a small point: At the end of the article, you mention that switching the slot to IAD would allow a 767 to replace the 777, but I think that a 767 could make DEN-LHR (4671 mi; 763ER range is 5975 mi). I remember flying on an AA 767 LAX-LHR back in the day.

    1. I’m not so sure that the 767 could make it. I know that a 767 to Honolulu has to take weight restrictions at times in the winter. That’s 1,300 miles shorter than London though it’s into a headwind and has to carry a lot of extra fuel for the overwater portion. But then again, United may have better engines on their international 767s than the domestic ones that do Hawai’i. Still, I think it’s questionable if it could make it.

  6. It is clear that United only considers Denver to be a domestic hub and nothing more. That is unfortunate. Many travelers would love to avoid immigration at IAD, and travelers in the Southwest get a much more direct routing.

    Furthermore, there are dozens of destinations that are served from Denver that are not served from IAD or ORD. Those people will have to make two stops to Europe instead of one. I suppose those must be smaller cities with few LHR connections. If inland hubs like DFW and IAH can support connecting trans-Atlantic traffic, DEN could too, but only if managed and marketed properly.

    Another factor is the successful LH flight to FRA. This is where most Europe bound, Star Alliance passengers from the southwestern states end up. There just aren’t as many Star Alliance connections at LHR as there are at FRA.

    1. There’s a big difference with DFW and IAH, though. Dallas and Houston metro are both home to better than 6 million people. That’s nearly 2 1/2 times the size of metro Denver. There’s a whole heck of a lot more trans-Atlantic traffic generated down here. Not saying that Denver couldn’t necessarily support such service, but it’s comparing apples to oranges.

    2. Beyond the population size, DFW is a whole different story because that’s oneworld’s hub to hub connection. There is a ton more traffic to flow over that route. It’s also why Lufthansa flies Denver-Frankfurt on an A340-600 in the winter and a 747 in the summer.

      Houston is also a different story because of Continental’s network. If you don’t do Houston, Continental could only get you to London via Newark. So Houston adds a ton of one stop options to cities throughout the south and west.

      Now, it’s somewhat superfluous compared to what it was, but it is a bigger city too. Also, there’s a ton of oil traffic between Houston and the Middle East and that’s one area where bmi actually can provide good connections in Heathrow.

  7. While it is unfortunate for DEN to lose another international flight it really isn’t all that surprising. LH has struggled to keep more than the DEN-FRA non-stop running and I don’t think the loads on BA’s DEN-LHR are all that great. DEN has a long way to go before it has more than international flights to Mexico and Canada. They are constantly trying to get ANA to give us a DEN-NRT non-stop, but even with the 787 I don’t know if that route will ever be feasible. Heck, we can’t even get VX to give us a couple of flights!

  8. Given the BA competition, I’m a bit surprised that UA would cancel the DEN-LON nonstop. They’ll gain few travellers with a 4th WAS-LON nonstop (as you suggest, 3 daily choices on a tranatlantic nonstop should be enough!).

    I think most leisure travellers from DEN will now choose the BA nonstop, assuming pricing is the same. Meanwhile, UA will also lose some time-sensitive higher fare biz travellers (if somebody’s paying my way, I’m going nonstop unless I really care about the ff miles). And, of course, UA loses the easy connectivity to LON for its entire mountain west DEN feed zone.

    The only explanation is that this route just doesn’t make any money. That there aren’t enough DEN-LON pax to justify service. That BA can afford to operate the service by connecting pax BEYOND LON. It would be interesting to see the stats.

  9. BA is really strong in Washington so United could use the extra lift. Virgin’s flight is mainly for VFR and O&D to LHR.

    People don’t think about the Star Alliance network in Heathrow which is quite big. If it weren’t for the high costs at Heathrow and the outdated terminal (can’t wait for T2), then more people would connect there instead of the usual Frankfurt.

    Also, IAH now exists and has a bigger international market (read: oil) than Denver (which mainly has domestic traffic). So rerouting through IAH makes sense despite the ugly transfer facility there.

    Interesting to see where that 777 will end up.

  10. I mostly agree.

    The negative here, in my eyes, is that pulling the few “unique” routes out of the Denver hub reduces UAL down to just another domestic carrier like SWA and Frontier. I don’t think United can win that fight against the two LCCs.

    I think they’re going to end up conceding the Denver hub. It might not end up as small as a Cincinnati, but I think it’s headed that way…

    1. I agree with your assessment: If United truly wants to think of Denver as just a domestic hub and consolidate down interesting or unique routes like this, they give me even less reason to consider them above Frontier or (god forbid) Southwest. Even some also-rans at DEN like Delta offer enough price-competitive options that if I have to connect, why not do it through Minneapolis, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant of an airport than pretty much all of United’s hubs other than DEN. I already won’t fly through ORD for any reason on any airline, regardless of price.

      If United does concede Denver as you say, it’ll only be because they made the bizarre decision to dismiss the advantages they have as a traditional carrier and tried to get into a domestic war with Frontier and Southwest, which is pretty much a suicide mission.

      1. Remember that Southwest’s costs are getting higher. They’re not the low-cost carrier that they used to be.

        Frontier on the other hand is hands down the cost winner in the US. (Except for AirTran, which is going up to the Southwest cost structure soon).

        I’m sure something will change with the 787. United won’t give up Denver that easily. Triple EQM’s anyone?

        1. Sure WN’s costs are going up, but so are UA’s. WN still has all kinds of cost advantages over UA and that will continue. With WN flights to Mexico and Hawaii coming soon, UA will take another hit at DEN.

  11. Does UA have long range 767’s? TWA used to use the 763ER for nonstop LAX-CDG so it can be done, but maybe the higher elevation in summer at Denver might make that hard to do (any expects know).

    Years ago Western Airlines did DC10 LAX-DEN-LGW and that didn’t last all that long and DEN was a hub for them at that time.

    It’s more like UA/CO is trying to beef up east coast travel to London to try and match what DL/AA/BA offer in the area and try to grab more east coast connecting traffic.

    1. David, see Jason H’s post above. The altitude isn’t really an issue anymore thanks to the big a** runway they built up there. My guess is you could get a loaded 763ER airborne with 16,000 feet of concrete. Supposedly, they built it so A380s could land in DEN, though frankly, I’d be surprised if scheduled A380 flights go to/from DEN anytime soon.

      1. The UA 767-300 ( International 3 Class AC ) holds 183 PAX’s. That plane would be too small, considering the average loads was around 250 during the Summer.

  12. Fair enough that there may not be other options, and crossover from Star to oneworld isn’t likely – but the difference between a 355p departure and 655p is a big one. 655 lets me work through lunch – or take a client to lunch, and the new flight doesn’t.

  13. I think this makes sense. In the summer BA flies 747/777 to IAD so it has a lot of capacity, given that UA flies 777/767 it probably needs an extra flight to compete more effectively. An extra afternoon departure from LHR would also make sense for onward connections.

  14. Another one bites the dust. As someone living in Denver, the term “International” for the airport is a bit of a joke. How many direct international flights do we have (exc. Canada and Mexico). True trans-Atlantic. Very very few. Hope this improves as the years go on.

  15. Exellent analysis Cranky. As JasonS mentioned, the LH/FRA connection to DEN is much more viable as it is a STAR2STAR hub hop. Plus, allot of the downline connectivity cities in the soutwest and far west can go over IAH too…so they are not walking away from allot of regional market. While I hate to see DEN-LHR go away (for now), this is really nothing more than network optimization at work.

  16. United is to Denver as Delta is to Cincinnati.

    United has flights to London from LAX, SFO, ORD and IAD. Continental has IAH and EWR. They just don’t need so many connecting points to London.

    1. I wouldn’t go that far. Cincinnati is within 600 miles of 4 other Delta hubs with Detroit only 229 miles away. Denver, however, is the best hub location in the Mountain West and the next closest United hub is more than 850 miles away. It’s a very viable hub location whereas I don’t feel that way about Cincinnati.

      1. I would also bet the farm that DEN handles IRROPS (snow for instance) a heck of a lot better than most of the other hubs in the UA network. Sure we melted down a couple of years ago, but it isn’t a yearly occurrence (or weekly at ORD).

      2. I was talking about a hub for international flights. After the Delta-Northwest merger, Cincinnati lost all but one of its several European destinations. The same is certainly going to happen to a few United/Continental hubs. Denver may remain as a domestic hub.

  17. This is disappointing. I was booked on a late April 948 from Denver returning to Heathrow on United and it is now cancelled. Booked it specifically because it was the non-stop and because I could leave late in the day. Lovely. Will definitely try and stick with BA for my Denver trips in the future if the price differential isn’t too much.

  18. I’ve flown both of the carriers, BA and UA from Denver and hands down the service and comfort of the aircraft belong to BA. The load factor for UA to LHR averaged 84% so not bad. The problem is UA wants more high paying business travelers and you can’t tell me the flat beds compared to the “reclining” seats don’t make a different to a business traveler. No contest to sleep laying down. UA needs to get their act together and upgrade the aircraft.

  19. I wonder if this decision is also to do with slots at LHR. UA had been slowly but consistently selling its LHR slots (some say in order to raise much needed cash). I’m pretty sure that UA had 4 IAD/LHR turns last summer, so the math works out that UA will be using one fewer LHR slot this summer.
    Separately, CO has been trying to build up its LHR presence, having only recently started flying there and has been the high bidder in the market, paying eye-popping prices a couple of years ago. I would not be at all surprised to find that this slot has gone to CO to increase its EWR frequency, which is currently only 5x daily.

  20. The UA DEN-LHR flight actually had good local traffic support. It was about 50-50 between local checks and connecting paxs. UA seems to think they can use the AC from the east coast to lure more paxs who pay higher business fares. I’m sure BA is happy about this move. The LH DEN-FRA flight supposedly does well. It’s being upgraded from an A340-600 to a 747-400. The LH DEN-MUC flight is the one that didnt do well that got cxld 2 years ago. But it looks more and more like UA will keep DEN a domestic hub, even though I don’t see it turning out like DL’s CVG hub. WN unfortunately continues to grow at a record pace in the Mile High City.

    1. But are they growing or are they just pouring more and more marketing money into a sinkhole? They’re certainly obnoxious about plastering their brand everywhere they can in downtown Denver, to the point that it’s generated some backlash (defaced/tagged billboards at a much higher rate than average — as mentioned to me by a friend who sells billboards in the Denver/Colorado Springs area).

    2. The -400 is hardly an upgrade. The AVOD on the A340-600 is much better than the 747, plus it has a 32 in pitch compared to the 31″ on the 747. That can certainly make a difference on 9 hr 40 minute flight.

  21. Cranky, your assertion that a 3:55pm and 7pm departure are really no different is incorrect for a lot of travelers. I personally leave on all my Euro trips as late as possible to allow me to work that day (thus taking one less vacation day). Also, I have much less jet lag when I leave in the evening on the West Coast.

  22. I didn’t realize there were so many interested in DEN-LHR. My focus on LAX-SYD service is probably non-controversial.
    A commentator discussed how much better BA service is over UA. I am losing my Star Alliance Silver status this year due to non-qualification of miles on a SFO-AKL rt. Since I am starting over again, should I switch over to Oneworld with Qantas and JAL for flights to SYD and NRT instead of trying to gain back Star Alliance. Would any of you consider JAL service on a par with BA?

  23. Adding a fourth daily trip to Washington/Dulles is a no brainer. Most of these tickets are taxpayer financed and thus not susceptible to economic forces.

  24. The analysis brings up several good points, especially the piece on network optimization, but I believe the single most important consideration in this decision was the economics of the route. Fares from Denver have been comparable to those from DC or Chicago, and given the extra 1000-1600 miles, the “bang per buck” drops considerably per paying passenger.

    A reader above lamented the decision because SFO was “overpriced” and because DEN was good for “mileage fares” (I assume this means cheap fares used for mileage runs). Well, guess what, that’s the whole point. If you’re a business, if you have a decision between putting an asset in a place that where people will pay you $X and only fill the planes so that they can accrue freebies, or putting the asset in another place where they will pay $2X, what would you do?

    It’s true that it’s too bad for Denver folks, but it’s mainly a matter of not enough demand at the right price. So blame your neighbors..

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