United Announces Sweeping Changes to Europe, Will Open London Heathrow Hub

April Fools, United

It’s been a difficult year for all airlines, but for United — an airline with a heavy international focus that’s been plagued by 777 engine issues — it’s been even more challenging. Now, United is announcing sweeping changes to its European network that it hopes will solve all of its problems at once. The move makes London the heart of the airline’s European presence going forward.

Original Source: mpar21 on Flickr via Airline Maps

United will eliminate Transatlantic flying outside of London and will instead replace it with a London/Heathrow hub to serve the Continent. Routes to Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, and Zurich will remain from the US on joint venture partners, but everything on United itself will route through London.

Here is the plan for increased London flying from the US:

OriginPrevious Planned Daily FlightsNew Planned Daily Flights
Los Angeles11
Myrtle Beach01
New York/JFK01
San Francisco22

In London, United will now operate three daily banks to connect US travelers to the Continent with flights to the following cities. (It will also codeshare on joint venture flights to other cities flown by Lufthansa Group.)

DestinationDaily Flights

This radical shift will solve several problems for the airline.

Better Matching Supply with Demand

There is no shortage of people wanting to go to Europe, but there is a shortage of politicians and regulators willing to actually open the borders to travelers from the US. The UK is far ahead in terms of vaccinations and has a greater political will to open borders than most, so United can consolidate its presence in London while still providing connections to other cities with lower, less-expensive capacity.

United CEO Scott Kirby confirmed this thinking. “Everybody knows that we’ve been incredibly bearish on air travel during COVID since the very beginning of this pandemic, and that hasn’t changed. I’m not expecting a recovery and open borders in the European Union for a long time, if ever. They might just shut that place down for good. We crunched the numbers over and over again, and this is the right way forward.”

Retiring the PW-Powered 777s

The most pressing issue for United has been what to do about its 52-strong fleet of 777-200 aircraft powered by Pratt & Whitney engines, about half of which are in service today, or were before they ran into problems. Those engines have suffered fan blade issues, most recently leading to an uncontained failure on a flight from Denver to Hawai’i that required grounding the fleet for lengthy inspections.

According to Tom Doxey, SVP of Technical Operations for United, “those airplanes are broke. The old United neglected them for so long that this engine issue is just a nail in the coffin. I can’t believe we were still flying these things, and I can get anything airworthy. Remember, I used to work for Allegiant!”

By consolidating European service in London, United can dramatically lower the need for widebody aircraft. It will shift most of its 777-300ERs into London to ensure there’s enough capacity. Then it will have its pre-merger Continental 777-200s with GE engines primarily focus on the Pacific along with the 787 fleet. That leaves the 767-300/400 fleet to take over much of the domestic and Latin flying that was being done by 777s previously.

Finding a New Home for the CRJ-550s

United put a lot of money and effort into converting 70-seat CRJ-700s into 50-seat CRJ-550s to comply with its scope clause restrictions. Those airplanes were designed for business routes, but business travel has remained severely depressed during the pandemic. United worked with the operator, GoJet, to form a new subsidiary called British United Airways which can operate these airplanes for cheap on all of the European flights except for Athens which is just beyond the range of the aircraft. That will be operated by a widebody since Greece if one of the few countries that will actually be open by this summer and may have actual demand.

Here’s an early mockup of the livery:

Ralf Manteufel (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons

Though business travel doesn’t exist much on the other side of the Pond either these days, there is more high-dollar, premium cabin traffic going between the US and Europe for leisure that will appreciate these airplanes and pay higher fares.

Patrick Quayle, VP of International Network and Alliances for United, explained it this way. “Ankit [Gupta, VP of Domestic Network Planning] couldn’t figure out what to do this these things. Did you see he had filed them to fly from Indianapolis to Portland, Maine and Milwaukee to Myrtle Beach?! If that’s the bar that’s being set for loading flights in the domestic schedule, then I can definitely do better over in Europe. In fact, we made a bet. The worst performer has to buy the winner a nice bottle of whisky we can drink while watching aircraft scenes in my dryer.”

The Slot Problem Along With Fifth Freedom Rights

All of this makes almost too much sense, but there was a problem. After all, Heathrow is a heavily slot-restricted airport, and United has no right to carry local traffic in Europe as a US-based airline. I couldn’t understand how this was going to be possible until I spoke with Andrew Nocella, Chief Customer Officer for United.

As Andrew told me, “When I was at American, I had built excellent relationships with the British Airways team. I just called them up and explained my plan, and they were on board right away.”

Though Andrew wouldn’t go into full details, here’s how I understand it. United explained to BA that despite a complicated and secretive ownership structure involving Mana Air and some Nigerian airline that would have technically allowed for it to happen, United won’t be doing any local marketing and will only be trying to fill these airplanes with connecting passengers. BA then realized it had an opportunity.

With traffic being down due to the pandemic, having an airline come in that posed no actual threat meant BA could help plot to keep others out of Heathrow. It just had to fork over some slots. New BA CEO Sean Doyle said that after he received a desperate call from former BA exec and now CEO of JetBlue Robin Hayes inquiring about slots, he knew he had to find a way to better utilize his slots or he’d be in trouble.

“JetBlue wants to come in here and lower fares. They already picked up some temporary slots for August. Screw that. United definitely won’t do that, so we’re good with this plan. Besides, we’re flying a ton of flights to places nobody wants to go, like Manchester and Belfast. We’ll gladly turn those slots over,” Sean explained. “Besides, I was able to get United to add flights to my hometown in Cork so I can get home whenever I want. Our flights may be full, but theirs definitely won’t be.”

Travelers who were booked on nonstops will be reaccommodated when the new flights are loaded this weekend. The new structure will go into effect on… never. Happy April Fools day to all!

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40 comments on “United Announces Sweeping Changes to Europe, Will Open London Heathrow Hub

  1. You had me until I realized what todays date was. These days nothing would shock me. See you in September. Cheers.

  2. Thanks for the tables (I’m a grumpy old man who doesn’t find April 1 articles that amusing, so I didn’t read much of the text). The Myrtle Beach route, though, is amusing and clever.

  3. I’m surprised that you didn’t include a note that United had convinced Her Majesty’s government to push through a plan to add two new 12,000′ runways at LHR, but I guess that would have been too over the top.

  4. There is some slighty errors on spme daily frequencies.

    Amsterdam and Paris are going to be four daily flights not 3.

    Hahah !!

  5. Just curious, why does everyone avoid Vienna? During normal times Austrian Airlines flies 4 to 6 wide bodies a day non-stop to North America. No US airlines flies to Vienna at all and none have since PanAm days. It’s a big market for both business and leisure travel.

    1. It’s also one of the easiest hubs through which to connect in Europe. I’ve flown Austrian a number of times to VIE and its super convenient. Although, anything’s better than CDG.

  6. love it.. it was too strange to be true… then realize it was april 1st!! from United anything can come.

    1. I know… I can imagine poor Clevelanders being excited for a moment or three!

  7. Myrtle Beach! ;-D ? That’s awesome Cranky. FYI, if you want to “get” people longer, don’t put the April Fools tag right at the top of the post (at least not for a day or two ;-)

    Now if it had been me running an April Fools aviation blog post this year, I think I would have had to go with Delta deciding they had done so well with their Georgia voting law lobbying that they were starting an entire business unit to do lobbying and policy work across a wide range of political issues – it’s more profitable than flying airplanes! ??

  8. Well played. I started getting suspicious right about the time Myrtle Beach got thrown in there as a destination. But I admit I was thinking “well, maybe UA could make a go of it, as CRJ-550s have 10 more real F seats than the domestic Europe competition.”

    This better show up in Cranky Daily, in case any subscribers there missed this gem ;)

  9. “ Remember, I used to work for Allegiant,” could be the opening quote for any article on new routes this year.

    Also, part of me actually hoped this was true and United had figured out a way to recreate PanAm’s FRA hub but at another European airport. Obviously, it wouldn’t be LHR but still….

  10. I didn’t believe you get that quote out of United for the 772PW problems, but I let it fly, haha. You really had me until the BA bit.
    And honestly, even then I was almost still convinced!

  11. Good one CF.
    Had me going, especially since I worked at Pan Am when we did operate mini HUBS at LHR and FRA just as you explained. Funny.
    Plus loved the mock up livery on the BAC-111.

    Thanks for the laugh

    1. Not a mock-up. It’s an actual British United BAC-111. Flown on one, my goodness, how long ago? LHR – EDI

  12. Believe it or not I wasn’t fooled at all, but I was so curious to see what you would come up with on this special day & you didn’t disappoint! There are so many good gems laced throughout that I was laughing the entire time as I was reading.

    Good going Cranky!

  13. I saw the April Fool’s tag up top, but still enjoyed it! “Milwaukee to Myrtle Beach?! If that’s the bar that’s being set for loading flights in the domestic schedule, then I can definitely do better over in Europe”. Lol.

  14. If anyone forgot today’s date, that Myrtle Beach – London routing is a clear tip off that this one is all for fun.

  15. GoJet setting up a low-cost foreign subsidiary that it moves all its planes and none of its labor to would only be more believable if it were Mesa.

  16. Whew! You had me all the way up until Myrtle Beach. Who knows how much further I’d have gone if you hadn’t stuck that one in there!

  17. I am a fool, an April fool … you had me all the way to the bottom of the article … (damn) ….

    Lets hope JetBlue really shakes up the US LHR market.

  18. Well done! You did not disappoint!

    Today’s news stories and sports reports are peppered with… How’s that again?

    Looking forward to many more April 1 posts, and the comments section…, we all know what that means!

  19. Seeing the Pan Am logo brought back memories of going to London for their International Tariffs and Ticketing school mumble mumble years ago.

    Well played, Cranky!

  20. Incidentally, United’s LHR route map did look similar to the one you posted right after the Pan Am asset purchase. I was based in London with a UA for four years — the highlight of my career.

  21. I laughed so hard when I saw the headline and the Pan Am logo that my wife checked on me to see that I was okay. Thanks.

  22. Dang! This is what I get for getting behind in my email. Reading this on April 5th, I wasn’t in an ‘fool’ state of mind (well, no more than normally) I was buying this. The Ops guy badmouthing the 777s was a little shocking. But the easy slot access at LHR… Too far :-)

  23. I somehow missed this when it came out two years ago. Brilliant! To bad the BUA acronym couldn’t be expanded to BUA-HA-HA! That would’ve been perfect for April Fools.

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