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:
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):
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.
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: