I’ve already looked at how American, Delta, and Southwest scheduled themselves in May, and now it’s time to round this out by looking at United. A quick peek at schedule data via Diio by Cirium made it clear that United had cut VERY deep.
Let’s put it this way. In May of last year, United operated 34,451 flights. This May it will have a mere 7,142, or about 20 percent of what it flew last year. Considering that United said there were single days last May that had more passengers than the airline expects for the entire month of May this year, this sounds like it could have gone even further. Though to be clear, there is also a massive downgauging here that means United will only fly 15 percent of the seats it flew last year.
During the week I reviewed — as with Delta, it was May 13-19, 2020 versus May 15-21, 2019 — United will not operate a single flight on its A320, 737-900, 757, 767, and 777-300ER fleets. Take a look:
You can’t see it, but there are actually 4 flights a day on the 777-200. Other than that, the 787 is the only widebody flying. And it’s barely flying.
International is Gone
United did not hesitate to absolutely crush its international network in May.
And before you say anything, I know. St Thomas, San Juan, and Saipan are not international flights, but I put anything outside the 50 US states here. And it’s just not much.
Outside the skeleton remains of the Guam network, United will only fly San Francisco to Tokyo/Narita and Sydney over the Pacific. Over the Atlantic, it’s just a handful of flights to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and London/Heathrow. And outside of Sao Paulo, Latin/Caribbean is all narrowbody flying.
As gutted as this is, it’s really the domestic network that’s more interesting.
Three Hubs/Focus Cities Are Gone
Unlike Delta, United has very few flights that don’t touch its hubs, but what it did have is now gone. And it’s not just that, but two hubs disappear as well. (I’ll talk about one now and the other later.)
Let’s start with the only true focus city, the remains of the Cleveland hub.
With its focus cities, Delta at least kept connectivity to the hubs, but United had no mercy in Cleveland. All that’s left are flights to Chicago/O’Hare heading west and Washington/Dulles heading east. This makes it a rather small spoke.
But as mentioned, Cleveland wasn’t the only one to get the axe. Los Angeles saw something similar, if slightly less dramatic.
LAX now has service only to the other United hubs. That is it. San Francisco is all operated by Embraer 175s. Newark is now on domestic 737-800s, and everything else is on the A319. This too is just a spoke in May.
San Francisco Becomes a Western Regional Hub
Unlike Delta which kept more flying on the West Coast then I would have expected, United has slashed and burned. San Francisco, the airline’s premier California hub and Pacific gateway is now just a regional hub.
Let’s start with what was cut.
If that looks like a lot of routes are disappearing, that’s because they are. In fact, every non-hub route east of the Rockies goes away except Boston.
In other words, San Francisco remains to serve those destinations in the west that mostly aren’t served by other hubs. This is almost entirely about complying with the CARES Act minimum service requirements, outside of the big cities like Seattle or Las Vegas, which have service from multiple hubs.
This is the sole gateway to Hawai’i now, and there is something unique in there. United is flying a once weekly flight from San Francisco to Kahului to Hilo and back to San Francisco. That apparently will satisfy Hilo service requirements even though the market is usually served only from Los Angeles. What’s more, I don’t think they’re even selling the flight to Hilo, only the return.
Denver: A 1,000 Mile Radius
The rest of the country largely appears structured similarly. United is trying to shrink them down to serve their regions. If we look at Denver, United has effectively drawn a circle with a 1,000 mile radius and cut almost everything outside.
You can see that most anything east of the Mississippi is gone with a few other things closer in. The end result is a highly-tailored network.
San Francisco gets the west, Denver gets the mountains, and that means…
Houston Takes the South
At first glance, it doesn’t look like Houston has lost all that much compared to the others.
But once you look at what’s left, you can see exactly what United was doing here.
Houston is basically a Texas-South hub now. Yes, there are large cities in the West that feed into it, and there are some big northeast airports, but this is really about serving the South from Texas and surrounding states. That means, you probably know what Chicago is going to do.
Chicago Takes the North
Just as Houston serves the South, Chicago will serve the Upper Midwest, but it’s more of a North-East strategy. As you can see, most of the cuts here were south and west.
And when we see what remains, it reflects that fact.
As with Houston, big cities in the west retain service, and of course… Florida. But the rest is primarily in the northeast of the country.
And speaking of the Northeast, United has two hubs. Which one would win that battle? Not the one you’d think.
Newark Takes a Back Seat to Dulles
The natural assumption is that Newark would be the primary northeast hub, but that’s only if you don’t watch the news. New York is the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, and so there is no demand. Combine that with the near elimination of Transatlantic service, and what good does Newark do? Not much.
I never thought I’d see the day when the mighty Continental hub in Newark was reduced to only serving other United hubs within the US. There is a 787-8 flying to San Francisco, undoubtedly to feed the airplane between the networks, but everything else is on an A319 or 737. Yes, there are still a few Atlantic flights, but Newark has ceased to exist as a hub domestically.
And that means Washington/Dulles is the winner. That’s not to say it didn’t lose routes. It most certainly did.
But most of the routes that were cut were east-west routes. Those can be served well via Chicago, Denver, or Houston. Then there are routes like Manchester and Providence which, as part of the Boston metro area, are allowed to be cut entirely from the United system. We would have seen more of this if the government hadn’t been so strict with minimum service requirements.
The end result is:
Dulles is now the primarily north-south hub for the airline east of the Mississippi. Most of the flow is still regional; that isn’t a huge amount of service into the South. But this does cover the last remaining piece of the country that United needed.
Wrapping It Up
As you can see, United cut deep. It has ditched Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Newark in May along with most international operations. The rest of the hubs are meant to serve the cities that are closest to them, and that means a whole lot of city pairs will now require two stops instead of one to connect. Despite that, I can’t help but wonder what this would look like if there government rules on serving every city weren’t in place.
It’s incredible to think that United has a mere 20 percent of the flights it had last year… and 15 percent of the seats. But it’s more incredible to think that it should be less. Without the government changing its rules, however, this is probably about as good as United can do.