United Airlines will replace its 747-400s with three-cabin 777-200ERs on its flagships Los Angeles/San Francisco-Sydney routes starting next spring. Other changes include a 787 on the San Francisco-Osaka route (currently a mix between the 747 and 777) and the return of the 747 to Chicago to serve Tokyo Narita.
In an internal memo to United employees, United explained why it will bring the 747 back to Chicago after clustering its 747 base in San Francisco last year:
Last year we decided to move all of this flying to SFO to improve the reliability of this fleet. Now that reliability has been restored, and we have a plan in place to better support the fleet, we can put the 747 on the routes that are better suited for the number of passengers the 747 carries.
Changes should be loaded and bookable this Saturday, but it appears the 747s will fly routes that do a W pattern, such as SFO – FRA – ORD – NRT – SFO, so we may see London or Frankfurt to Chicago on the 747 as well.
Regarding the Sydney route, the three-cabin 777s from SFO and LAX to SYD will operated by legacy United crews and marks a further reduction in capacity on a route that has not seen a sale price all year. Economy passengers will appreciate audio/video on-demand at each seat, but one downside will be the loss of premium seats. BusinessFirst drops to 40 (from 52), and GlobalFirst drops to 8 (from 12). Those buying premium seats will be unaffected, but for those trying to upgrade…a tough route will be even harder.
My concern is internet–how soon will the 777s be equipped with it? Although the 747s lack personal IFE at each seat in economy, making for a boring flight if you don’t fancy the four movies United screens on large monitors in the front of each cabin, the 747s serving Australia are equipped with internet onboard and I know I speak for many when I say I’d much rather be connected for the 14hour flight then be able to watch the movies and listen to the music of my choice.
There is also some concern over the 777s ability to reach Sydney without having to make frequent “technical stops” in Honolulu or Nadi, Fiji for fuel. United and Boeing claim this will not be a problem–in fact, they assert the 777-200ER can haul more cargo than the 747-400 even when the plane is full of passengers and bags . I am skeptical–you cannot compare these 777ERs to the 777LR aircraft that Delta and Air Canada use to fly from the west coast to Sydney and we’ve seen with United’s transatlantic 757-200s that overly rosy estimates about range has resulted in frequent stops in Gander, Newfoundland for more fuel. But on the upside, the frequent mechanical problems that plague these Sydney flights should be a thing of the past.
I am happy to see that legacy United crews will still operate the Sydney routes, but hope that the new equipment will not lead to an era of $3,000 coach fares on this route. With a weakened Australia dollar dampening demand on Aussie holidays to the U.S. and Singapore’s relentless effort to serve Los Angeles to Sydney, I trust an eventual increase in capacity coupled with diminished demand will keep prices in check.