United’s 2021 Plan: Leisure and Modified 787s for Ultra Long-Haul


Tuesday was a productive day until 11:30am when United posted a teaser video in advance of its big 2021 international route announcement. Within minutes I was on a call with a couple of friends, picking apart the video, freezing frames, and furiously googling to see if we could decipher the code. What was it that United had planned?

Fortunately, my madness didn’t have to last for too long since I was able to get on the phone with United’s VP of International Network and Alliances, Patrick Quayle. You may remember my interview with Patrick back in June where he said the airline would “maybe add things that may surprise you.” He wasn’t kidding.

United will be adding seven new long-haul routes between December and June, and there is one overarching theme. As I see it, United has basically said, “we are going to have a lot of airplanes on the ground next summer with demand well below normal, so is there some way to keep them productive?” With one exception, these new routes are heavily oriented toward leisure or visiting friends and relatives which makes sense. These new routes fall into three categories.

1) Routes United Couldn’t Fly Until Now

There are two routes here that are ultra-long haul and until recently, United didn’t have the airplanes to make them work. But, Patrick explained to me that United is doing some modification work to its 787-9 aircraft. Specifically, it has increased engine thrust and altered the fuel management system to squeeze more range out of the fleet. (Both of these are software changes.)

Eventually this will be on the entire 787-9 fleet, but for now it will be a subfleet. More importantly to passengers, this subfleet will be guaranteed to provide the new Polaris cabin on these routes even though many 787s currently have the old product.

San Francisco – Bangalore (Daily 787-9, starting May 2021)

This route is a real outlier in that it is a huge business route while all the others are leisure-focused. This is a popular tech route, and it’s one that United would have flown before if it had the range. But at 250 miles further than SFO-Singapore, this was just too far until now.

I wrote about this in great detail back in February when American announced it would fly to Bangalore from Seattle. That route’s viability had to be partially based upon United not being able to fly from SFO. After all, here’s the chart I posted:

ARC/BSP Data via Cirium

The Bay Area is by far the biggest market that would feed that Seattle flight, especially since New York is better heading east through Europe. When I dove into Cirium and updated the data for full year 2019, it showed more than 200 travelers per day each way from the Bay Area alone.

This route should be a double winner in that it is a top request from corporate customers and it might make American think twice about its own plans.

Newark – Johannesburg (Daily 787-9, starting March 2021)

This is another one that needs the performance modification to work. It’s not the range that’s the problem so much but rather the high altitude in Johannesburg that made the market uneconomic for a westbound nonstop. Now that problem is solved, apparently. United will keep flying to Cape Town in the northern winter, but adding Johannesburg year-round is a much bigger step.

Delta, you might remember, announced in May that it was retiring its 777 fleet. That meant it no longer had an airplane that could fly Jo’burg to Atlanta nonstop. (That’s a few hundred miles further than Newark, by the way.) So, it is instead flying Atlanta – Johannesburg – Cape Town – Atlanta. United is now going to have a leg up on connections coming from Jo’burg into the US.

Let’s also not forget South African. Actually, let’s forget that mess of an airline. It is a Star Aliance partner and could be useful for United to feed connections in Jo’burg, but I doubt United is overly concerned about the competition out of JFK, if it even remains after that airline’s restructuring.

2) Visiting Friends and Relatives Around the World

The next three routes fall into a different bucket. They’re all about connecting lucrative VFR traffic demand. That’s the international traffic that should come back first.

Chicago/O’Hare – Delhi (daily 787-9, starting December 2020)

I can’t believe this route is starting in just a couple months. India won’t let Americans in, so does this actually work? Patrick said yes, and in fact, there are so many Indians in the US that there is still enough demand to grow Indian flying.

He explained that when these long flights work well from the coasts, then they start getting connections into places like Chicago. And that means India is doing rather well. Chicago has the second largest Indian population in the US behind New York, and according to Cirium, in 2019 it had nearly 170 people per day flying each way. Sure, Air India still flies that route, but that airline is in such turmoil that this may be a welcome alternative.

Add in the connectivity to other Midwestern and West Coast spots and you end up with a route that United is bullish about… even in December. I still have a hard time believing it.

Washington/Dulles – Accra (3x weekly 787-8, starting May 2021)

I was thinking we’d see Newark to Accra, but I was thinking wrong. Why Dulles? Well, my guess is that since Delta already flies from JFK and Washington has a large Ghanaian population, it was a good idea to try it down there. The South African nonstop in the market isn’t likely to return, so that leaves opportunity. Further, don’t underestimate the idea that the airplane has to be in the right place. There aren’t 787-8s in Newark next year, so this probably all came together nicely.

Looking at the size of the Ghanaian diaspora, DC comes in second behind New York, and it has all the government traffic as well. For 2019, Cirium ARC/BSP data shows the following markets with more than 10 passengers per day each way (PDEWs):

New York/JFK115.45
Los Angeles11.33
Dallas/Fort Worth10.28
Full year 2019 ARC/BSP data via Cirium

With a total of more than 430 PDEWs, it’s not a tiny market. And United hubs sit prominently on this list. The flight will go into the first European bank on the eastbound, so there will be plenty of flights to connect into it from around the country. And going westbound, it’ll be a redeye that connects to the sizable morning bank.

Washington/Dulles – Lagos (3x weekly 787-8, starting May 2021)

That laid up 787-8 will now spend half the week going to Accra and the other half going to Lagos. Lagos looks a lot like Accra… only better. Instead of 430 PDEWs, Lagos had 625. And the list of markets with more than 10 looks even more attractive to United.

New York/JFK139.26
Dallas/Fort Worth29.84
Los Angeles28.71
San Francisco13.44
Full year 2019 ARC/BSP data via Cirium

Houston falling into the number two spot bodes well for United. Long ago, Continental began flying to Lagos from Houston for all that oil travel. But flying out of Dulles allows United to get East Coast flying and combine it with the Houston demand. It’s only three days a week, so it’s not a huge risk. Delta won’t like either of these.

We Have Extra Big Airplanes… I Know… Hawai’i!

United and all the big US airlines had been trying to expand their long-haul reach into smaller secondary markets. In the wake of the pandemic, there’s no way these airlines are going to try those next summer. That means there are a lot of airplanes sitting on the ground. We’ve seen some creative ways to fill big airplanes above, but sometimes you just have to go with what’s easy. Filling airplanes to Hawai’i in the summer is easy from the West Coast but not quite as easy from the East Coast. Still, with international travel likely to be down and the Hawaiian quarantine presumably lifted, these are routes that are likely worth a swing.

Newark – Kahului, Maui (4x weekly 767-300ER, starting June 2021)

I am planning on watching this operation closely next summer to see how often a fuel stop is required. Going westbound shouldn’t be too bad. After all, Condor flies 767-300ERs 700 miles further from Frankfurt to Phoenix without trouble. But Kahului has a 6,998 foot runway and that has historically made it very difficult for airlines to fly long distances from there.

If this does work operationally, then this will probably be a rock star. Hawaiian has been flying to JFK from Honolulu, but anyone flying to Maui has to stop. I’d expect this to work financially if it can work operationally.

That 767 looks like an interesting choice. Why not a 787? Just remember, it’s all about where airplanes are sitting around doing nothing. Those 767s were going to Palermo or Prague or Naples. That’s not happening next summer. Meanwhile, the only 787s in Newark next summer are the 787-10 and that’s too much airplane for this.

Chicago/O’Hare – Kona (4x weekly 787-8, starting June 2021)

This route falls into the same category as the last one. For now, the 787-8 is in Chicago next summer flying Beijing, but who knows if that’ll happen. Might as well use some aircraft time to go to Hawai’i. Kona has no operational issues with its luxurious 11,000 foot runway.

I like the creativity here in finding ways to use these airplanes next year. It’s likely to still be a very different world next summer, and United is trying to find ways to keep its airplanes flying. I imagine it’s a safe bet that not all of these will work, but if you assume that the airplanes are just sitting on the ground otherwise, you don’t have to take those ownership costs into account. That makes it worth trying things that you might not try in a normal year.

Oh, and by the way, if you watched the video and wondered what all the clues were, here’s the answer key:

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29 comments on “United’s 2021 Plan: Leisure and Modified 787s for Ultra Long-Haul

  1. 1. You didn’t mention that UA managed to come up with an agreement with its pilot MEC that eliminates pilot furloughs which is part of what is driving all of these new routes. Internet chatter shows less than stellar interest from the top and middle third of United’s pilots but United’s ALPA MEC has a history of getting agreements passed by the slimmest of margins while many UA pilots believe they gave up too much that they never recover. UA has to deal w/ not being able or willing to do the same thing for other workgroups but the upshot is that they have “too many” pilots for their current network esp. given the slow return of travel in Asia/Pacific.
    2. United might believe that further airline aid is dead (it is supposedly absent from Senate versions of a CARES Act 2 bill) but these routes do little to convince lawmakers that the airline industry needs help. It is one thing to argue that you need money to maintain your network but a major international expansion is in another league; this is on par with what UAL announced for new international flying in a pre-covid/best of times for the industry year. Add in that more than half of these routes are in markets that AA or DL either fly or have committed to flying and UA’s announcement is far more about trying to take a piece out of its competitors than staying alive – which is where most of the industry is focused. Of course, American is still saying it needs more help (said it might ask for WN’s portion of CARES Act 1 loans since WN is not taking it) so UA’s move might be as much about making sure that there is no CARES Act 2 and AA will be harder hit because of that than anyone else.
    3. The chances of DL starting any or all of ORD/IAH/IAD to LAX by next summer with at least some of its new A220-300s just went up dramatically.

    1. If delta wants to lose More money, any of the lax routes you suggested would Do well at that.
      Delta didn’t even start lax-ord in their most profitable times, they’re hardly going to do it now.

      1. The same can be said about United’s international expansion.
        What is clear is that some airlines are no longer afraid of failure so they are adding routes, including into other carrier strength markets as well as markets which other carriers already intended to fly (BLR). While in that particular case, it was a given that UA would figure out how to cut AA’s SEA-BLR route off before it ever started. In the case of Africa, DL has developed it and I am certain will defend it.
        DL has managed to grow ORD quite nicely over the past few years with comparable average fares as AA and UA to LGA, new (reinstated from years ago) to BOS, RDU plus all of the hubs including SEA.
        DL and UA have generally not stepped on each other’s toes in their expansions… DL has avoided IAH-LAX although it added AUS, SAT and DFW.
        AA is hanging on by a thread in IAD-LAX, if they even keep it.
        ORD-LAX is one of the largest industry markets that DL doesn’t fly. The A220-300 is the perfect aircraft – far more comfortable than anything UA or AA flies and it is the most economical aircraft in the skies on a per seat cost basis. The fact that DL is now the largest airline at LAX gives them all the reason to build out LAX.
        It is funny that UA sat on its hands and didn’t bother to add back capacity to its hubs in May and June; B6 has built a large presence (or announced it) at EWR and just announced more routes – in addition to others including from LAX and FLL. LUV will likely overtake UA as the largest airline at DEN certainly in terms of local O&D passengers. UA’s domestic network was already far weaker relative to the other big 4 and it has become much weaker with all of the new competition.
        UA’s domestic network has long been more profitable than its international network according to data it provides to the DOT and yet they are adding ultra long haul international flights while letting other carriers grow rapidly in their domestic hubs.

        I don’t think we have seen the end of the jockeying for position with post covid schedules; some airlines are going to be more conservative in their growth/re-growth strategies but I fully expect that DL will end up with more share in UA’s hubs and more revenue by adding domestic flights than UA has done in international markets. That is the way it has been between both AA and UA compared to DL for 40 years of deregulation.

        Of course, if AA really hits the ropes (Helane Becker noted that AA will be paying $1.5 billion per year every year in interest costs before any revenue), DL and UA will have plenty of market available for growth.

        1. The problem here is that you are expecting UA to be able to defend itself when the pandemic has arguable hit it the hardest. Airlines with less cash pre-COVID are going to come out weakest. Airlines that are dependent on business and TATL/TPAC traffic are going to get hit the hardest. Airlines that have large operation in northeast are going to get the hardest. UA check the boxes on all 3. They are working to just not go under. They are not Delta. DL had more money pre-COVID and they don’t have as much TPAC flying and their most important hub is not in the northeast. DL was always going to come out of this the strongest of the big 3. You can’t expect cash strapped airline like AA to not shrink dramatically.

          WN was always going to come out really strong. And due to PNW traffic recovering faster than other regions, AS is also able to come out of this stronger. B6 would be doing better except there is minimal demand out of NYC and Boston.

          There is a reason B6 is picking on UA more than anyone else. There is a reason WN is picking on UA at DEN and AA at PHX. Everyone can see their network planners face the biggest challenge.

    2. Tim – I don’t see it that way at all. The whole point of a CARES extension is that the airlines suggest another 6 month bump would get them over the hump. With the exception of Chicago-Delhi, these flights would start after the next round of funding would expire. Of course, if you’re an airline, you should actually be trying to manage your business and not just manipulate flying to match whatever will get you government funds.
      American, United, and now JetBlue are actively trying to play with networks to see what will work, as they should be.

      1. I am sure there are people including UA that disagree with the way I see things and that is ok.
        It doesn’t change the fact that some of the same industry dynamics still apply even in a major crisis recovery period.
        UA didn’t bother to defend its network against low cost carriers but apparently thinks they will get by with jumping into international markets which AA and DL fly or intended to fly.
        I believe the net-net will be that UA’s domestic network – which was already weaker than AA, DL or WN’s – will become much weaker while other carriers will grow into UA’s top domestic markets. The gain from what it adds internationally will be little if anything.
        And it also doesn’t change the fact that it is Congress and the Treasury that is watching what is going on in the airline industry. The mindset has clearly shifted from staying alive and cutting costs to growing and trying to take share from other airlines. American taxpayers weren’t overly thrilled with the first round of bailouts for airlines and the type of actions that UA and B6 are doing will further validate that it was a mistake helping airlines that are now simply returning to the same cutthroat behavior they have used for years.
        Further help for airlines is probably dead anyway and that is a shame for those that will be negatively impacted.
        The idea that some carriers have that they can engage in aggressive growth after receiving government aid will backfire both in the marketplace, and in Washington. It really doesn’t matter when the government aid was supposedly given or to be used for; airlines received aid that bought them a window that they are now using to do everything but survive.

        1. So just to clarify Tim: DL stealing LATAM and attacking Miami is a brilliant strategy, but UAL straight-up competing on routes is poor form that will have consequences? ?

          Maybe adding international destinations is exactly how they defend their domestic network? Both directly with feed and indirectly with loyalty.

          1. Tory,
            I am specifically talking about during the covid era and while asking for government aid.
            Airlines will invade each other’s markets – just don’t ask taxpayers to bail you out and then say ‘we aren’t using government money – that was last year’

            and I still am perplexed how United has sat on its hands and let low cost competitors aggressively grow into its EWR and DEN markets and then decide to grow into legacy carrier international markets.

            1. I’d say the counter-argument would be that part of the reason for the government aid was to keep up competition and fares down, vs. retreats to near-monopoly routes.

              I’m not sure there’s anything UA could have realistically done to hold down the competition at EWR and DEN. I’m sure they will aggressively compete on price, esp. with JB at EWR, but I don’t see how they could have prevented them from getting the gates.

          2. That’s pretty much Tim’s MO:

            Delta does it? Genius. (even after Delta lost all equity in every investment)
            Anyone else? worst idea ever and doomed to fail.

            1. In deference to memory of the events of 9/11, I will keep it short.

              Delta did not lose all of its equity in Latam; please check their latest financial statements.
              They were able to legally classify more than half of its Latam investment as a long-term asset not subject to writedown.
              Delta made its investment in Latam BEFORE the covid outbreak.

    3. If you think there will be much of ANY A-220 flying in 2021, you’d better pray that Delta Management doesn’t furlough those 1,941 pilots scheduled to be kicked out the doors. The cascading pilot equipment bids driven by a furlough of that magnitude — not to mention the months-long backlog of training requirements— virtually guarantees little to no A-220 flying in 2021. Word is that Delta will be trying to rent JetBlue’s A-220 Simulator just to try to get a few guys through. It WILL be another “Delta Debacle.”

      1. We’ll see . we heard the same thing about the introduction of the A350 and, while it was costly, they managed to operate their international network.

        The bigger issue is that DL and DALPA need to come up with ways to get pilot costs down to similar levels to what DL’s other workgroups are contributing which is really all the company wants.

  2. I’m very curious what AA decides to do with BLR. When I first read the announcement from UA I was pretty bearish on their chances, but the more I think about it the more I think they have a chance to make it work, at least in non-COVID times.

    UA will basically have the option of filling their flight with almost exclusively higher-paying local customers (i.e. those originating from the Bay Area) and will likely charge fares accordingly. This provides an opportunity for AA to gather some lower-fare leakage (which they may not want) if they choose.

    Also, while I’m not familiar with the SFO frequent-flyer scene I have to imagine that there are some AS loyalists who would rather connect through SEA and stay on OW. The Texas markets that Cranky shows in his pie chart are also interesting. UA will have the leg up in connecting passengers from IAH over SFO if they need to fill more seats while AA will have the leg up on connecting the larger DFW Indian community over SEA.

    Corporate contracts are also much more fluid than many here probably realize. It’s not as if Microsoft or Google or whoever has a contract with only one airline. In reality, the big tech firms likely have contracts with all of the US big 3 (plus others). Those lower on the totem pole will likely get sent where the fare is the cheapest which will result in some Bay Area travelers connecting through SEA and some Seattle-area travelers connecting through SFO. That’s back-of-the-plane traffic and it probably evens out.

    Then again, if the COVID situation doesn’t improve and travel doesn’t return then neither UA nor AA will make it work. All in all, it will be very interesting to see what develops in the US-BLR space.

  3. “That 767 looks like an interesting choice. Why not a 787? Just remember, it’s all about where airplanes are sitting around doing nothing. Those 767s were going to Palermo or Prague or Naples. That’s not happening next summer. Meanwhile, the only 787s in Newark next summer are the 787-10 and that’s too much airplane for this.”

    Isn’t it painfully obvious ? the 763ER is exactly what’s needed to overcome the runway situation, especially if they opt for the 46J low-density variety. That’s a necessary choice even if high-J to Nice were happening too.

  4. What are the chances UA runs a B788 between IAH and LOS with a stop in IAD each way? Could they rotate a B788 IAH-IAD-LOS-IAD-IAH to make one-plane service for cargo and pax between IAH and LOS? Or does the fact that pax would have to deplane, clear immigration, security etc. in IAD ex-LOS make this a nonstarter?

    1. Ben – Sure, it’s entirely possible if the routing makes sense, but I doubt it will. They only have 12 787-8s, so it’s easy to isolate these and see what they’re doing. Though next summer is far from final, this is what’s currently in the schedule:

      Chicago/O’Hare – Beijing Denver – Frankfurt, London/Heathrow, Tokyo/Narita San Francisco – Chengdu, Dublin, Osaka Washington/Dulles – Accra, Beijing, Lagos

      So the 788s aren’t touching Houston. More likely is that they’d do Denver or San Francisco to flow the fleet between hubs. But you never know.

  5. Cranky, can you explain a bit more about the software update? Is it something from Boeing that could be replicated by other airlines, like Air India or Vistara if either decided to also try the SFO route or is it proprietary to United?

    1. Chicago Chris – Unfortunately I don’t know any more details, but I can’t imagine this is unique to United. For the thrust upgrade, it’s like a paperwork upgrade. There is no mechanical change but they just need to change the computers to allow for more thrust, apparently. That’s pretty common and it’s usually controlled by the manufacturer. You just have to pay them to get the higher thrust. For fuel management, I assume this is similar to what Airbus did with the A350ULR. That airplane had changes to the fuel management processing to increase range. I again assume it’s the manufacturer. In other words, if you want these upgrades, you can get them but you’ll have to pay the price. (Or, you know, maybe United got this as partial compensation for the MAX garbage.)

      1. Hello Cranky!
        How safe do you think these so called “software” upgrades be? The 737 MAX also had just software updates and we all know how those ended up. Increasing thrust and modifying fuel management system to an existing aircraft via software updates – is that a safe thing to do?

        1. ScaredToFly – Though I don’t know any specifics about this particular one, this is a very standard thing. I wouldn’t worry at all.

  6. It’s good to see airlines being proactive instead of merely hunkering down and hoping for the best.

  7. The LOS route is also a GSA city pair award winner starting in October so that could help drive some incremental nonstop traffic. And pax will just connect until then.

  8. December – March is peak travel time to India because of the weather and that is wedding time / visiting family season.

    So in comparison to other routes, that route should make a premium.

  9. I think the likelihood of these routes operating at the announced capacity is pretty low for rest of this year and 2021. They have to announce it at a certain frequency level to capture revenue. I wouldn’t book these flights too far out. I think all the airlines are just trying to capture any revenue they can right now. Then when the time comes, they will decide what they actually need to operate. The marginal cost of additional flying is not high when you are already paying the pilot salaries and have planes sitting around doing nothing.

  10. I believe there are also some restrictions on ETOPS flying over the Himalayas since it’s not possible to descend to FL100 amid the mountains in the event of engine failure. So the actual routing taken for SFO-BLR may be even longer than the great circle distance suggests.

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