A Look at the Other Ocean: United Over the Atlantic


I wrote yesterday about how United had some real struggles filling seats in its Pacific network around the holiday season. But the only comprehensive data I have is load factor information combined with broad unit revenue trends by region as the airline reported in quarterly earnings. Load factor matters, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

I highlighted the Pacific yesterday because that’s where the numbers were worst. The airline had a big drop in unit revenue and low load factors. As I said then, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. United, like Delta, can afford to think strategically and invest in markets that might take time to develop. If it tries and everything works right off the bat, then it probably isn’t trying hard enough.

With that in mind, I thought today I’d head over to the Atlantic to look at performance in that market. It was a different story indeed.

Over the Atlantic, United reported having unit revenues grow 11 percent vs last year. Available seat miles grew 4.1 percent if we exclude Tel Aviv since that market could not operate this year due to war. (Including Tel Aviv in last year’s numbers, ASMs were down 6.7 percent year-over-year.) Loads did pretty well too.

United Europe/Middle East/Africa Load Factor by Month

Data via Cirium

Winter is generally a problem for the Atlantic. You can fill airplanes all summer long with no trouble, but in winter it gets a lot tougher. Instead, airlines tend to rely more on those premium cabin travelers to pay the bills while coach seats go more empty than usual.

As you can see above, this past December and January was pretty similar to the previous year in terms of load factor. Fares must have been just that much better. We’ll see how February holds up, when United hit a low point last year at 66 percent loads.

That’s not to say that every market did well. Take a look.

United Europe/Middle East/Africa Load Factor by Market for Dec 2023/Jan 2024

Data via Cirium

Look at Amman really filling those airplanes. I don’t know fare details, but that appears to have turned out to be a good add. At the bottom end, Amsterdam looks like a real problem child.

United Amsterdam Seats by Month

Data via Cirium

In this case, it looks like United probably just put too much capacity into the market. Dulles didn’t operate in the winter of 2022/2023, but it was back in 2023/2024. In Dec and Jan, seats on United in Amsterdam were up 42.3 percent year-over-year. And compared to 2019, they were still up 21.8 percent.

All the US gateways performed poorly in terms of loads. I’d imagine next winter we’ll see that one pulled back further.

London, on the other hand, is different. Sure, it had the second lowest loads, but Heathrow slots are highly coveted, and United isn’t going to give those up to reduce capacity. London remains a hugely important business market, so the name of the game is frequency and high fares.

All of United’s Newark and Chicago flights and half of Dulles’s during Dec/Jan were on the premium-heavy 767-300ER with only 167 seats. Only LAX supersized capacity with a 318-seat 787-10. The results show that LAX had too many seats, but also, O’Hare probably had too many flights.

United London/Heathrow Dec 2023/Jan 2024 Seats and Loads

Data via Cirium

A market like London is always going to march to the beat of its own drum. They can move cities around and hope for a better outcome. (Remember the brief and bad attempt at Boston – London?) But in the end, the number of flights will stay about the same.

Perhaps more surprising is a market like Lisbon which only filled three-quarters of its seats in Dec/Jan. Lisbon was apparently expected to be a rock star, because United put the 787-10 on the route instead of the smaller 767-400ER from last year. It was just too much airplane, at least for this year.

Here’s the thing about all this. If we look at United’s Atlantic portfolio, there is a whole lot to like. So maybe Amsterdam shouldn’t have had as much flying as it did. And perhaps Lisbon needs a smaller airplane. But those are the kind of things that you can fix easily going forward. If United hadn’t pushed very hard, it probably wouldn’t have found success in some of these other Atlantic markets. Next year, we’ll see what changes the airline makes.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

20 comments on “A Look at the Other Ocean: United Over the Atlantic

  1. With UA’s star alliance partner Frankenstein, I mean LH Group there are so many flights to most European cities that it doesn’t matter if UA flies a given route or not except for London, Paris & Amsterdam. For everything else… there’s High-speed rail.

    1. You bring up a good point though. I wonder how much of UA’s strength to Europe is driven by its broad array of European alliance partners.

      1. That’s more or less it. On the other hand AA depends on it’s One World partners for pacific feed & mostly BA for feed beyond London into Europe while Delta has strength over both oceans on it’s own flights as well as Sky Team members KE & KL.

        1. AA and Delta both have a broad array of destinations on their own metal into Europe. flightconnections.com is a nice place to view it visually.
          And both carriers enjoy funneling traffic via their partners whether it’s in LHR/DUB/MAD for AA or AMS/CDG for Delta. Ironically, it’s usually the Delta pilots most often whining about how much Delta funnels traffic through their European partner hubs.

    2. It depends. I prefer connecting in the US generally – more comfy than what LH group offers. And with HSR in Europe, it’s generally not quite seamless enough to connect to off of a flight unless you get one of the air+rail tickets which will protect during IRROPS.

  2. UA flier here, based at ORD. So, in Summer 2022, we were flying to Europe and the cheapest gateway was AMS. By quite a bit. So, even though were weren’t really going to AMS – we started and finished there. Our 787-8 was probably 70% full. Oh and AMS, by the way, ended up being a horrible choice because of the understaffing issues Schiphol had at the time with multi-hour lines to get through security. This summer, it’s DUB that’s the cheapest gateway. Again, by a good margin. From DUB we will simply take short hops and trains to where we want/need to go.

    So, Europe is a different kind of destination than, say, Australia (duh) in that you are more likely to choose a destination in that region because you need to go to that specific area/region. Europe is smaller and more dense. And yet it seems to be quite a bit more profitable too.

    1. Good point, people might have actively booked away from AMS during the lengthy period of staffing and operational issues

  3. Does an analysis such as this factor in JV and code share partner flights? Multiple European destinations from IAD have flights on United and/or partner metal.

    I just read that Swiss is returning to IAD after a lengthy absence but UA has always had ZRH (and GVA) flights. Vienna is the inverse, it’s always been on Austrian metal but United doesn’t fly it. Of course FRA, MUC and others have both.

    Passengers see these as largely identical, there’s even a UA flight number on all of them. So it seems these partner / JV flights have to be considered in analyses like this, right?

    1. IAD to GVA was my “slam dunk” Points Plus routing last year. Even though I’m ORD based, I’d route through IAD to GVA and then on to Eastern Europe every time I flew as I ALWAYS got upgraded on the High J 767. Given the loads on that flight, I’d be surprised if it ran next summer.

      UA’s TATL network can’t be beat and even though the strikes in Germany got me a few times, being rerouted through LHR usually meant I could still get home the same day. I love that UA continues to experiment over the Atlantic and with SAS’s departure from *A, I hope UA continues to try routes in Northern Europe (pending FAA permission).

  4. The biggest comparison to the Pacific is that UA had minimal growth over the Atlantic; while the analysis doesn’t show capacity changes by market, UA very likely didn’t change much from 2023 to 2024 so they knew exactly what they were “getting into” and were able to price their capacity effectively. Gradual growth works while large-scale expansions usually result in a drag on system finances.

    When you operate route systems as large as UA’s TPAC or TATL systems, there -will be underperforming routes but you can absorb those when the majority of your network does well.

    AMS and LHR are obviously large competitor JV hubs so UA is going to be at a disadvantage there just as AA and DL are in LH Group hubs. Everyone does a certain amount of strategic flying; it is simply balancing that esp. in the off-peak periods.

    The 787-10 is a very cost efficient aircraft and may well cost about the same or less to operate than either version of the 767. The 787-10 results too many seats during some parts of the year but it will be very cost efficient for most of the year and likely more profitable than smaller, older generation aircraft even if you have to aggressively discount for a few months a year or go out w/ empty seats.

  5. If UA’s AMS flights performed poorly in Dec/Jan months, we can predict Jetblue’s AMS flights load factor won’t be much better. It could even be worst as Jetblue is new to trans-atlantic market.

  6. The old adventurous college backpacker in me is really happy to see 4 of their top-11 trans-Atlantic routes aren’t to Europe. That’s really stunning.

    1. ATX – I assume you’re talking about the Amsterdam chart which is correct, there is no SFO – Amsterdam flight in the winter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier