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.
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:
|Origin||Previous Planned Daily Flights||New Planned Daily Flights|
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.)
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:
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!