United Airlines is cutting service between Philadelphia and Washington Dulles in January. The carrier has also abandoned service to Philadelphia from Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Newark. But United insists it is growing, not shrinking in Philadelphia.
Some background first. I “lived” (at least a few days per week) in Philadelphia for three years completing my law degree. The city never really grew on me and this was during the Great Recession, an era of cheap airfare. What ended up happening, almost every single week, is that I would schedule classes for Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday only so that I could fly home Thursday evening or Friday morning and take a redeye back on Monday night. If you’re wondering how I earned MillionMiler status on United in my mid-20s, it was in large part due to my weekly trips home.
And while I sometimes flew via Chicago and Houston, my routing was almost always the same: Philadelphia to Washington Dulles for the first segment. It’s a short flight, but earned me 500EQM and 1,000RDM as a 1K (at the time) and connecting in Washington Dulles became a happy routine.
I reached out to United about why the Philadelphia to Washington Dulles route is being cancelled and received a fairly rigorous defense of United’s position in Philadelphia.
Our decision to discontinue service between Washington Dulles and Philadelphia is effective after the holiday peak schedule in January 2019. Service between Washington Dulles and Philadelphia was primarily operated with regional jets and as you have seen with our East Coast schedule adjustments, our focus is providing more mainline service between our hubs and a city like Philadelphia, for example. Because of the short distance the route generated very few local passengers and the majority of the connecting traffic was duplicative of some of the other flights we operate and did not meet our financial expectations.
United asserts that it wants to operate more mainline aircraft to Philadelphia and this was not plausible to/from Washington Dulles. When I regularly took this flight, the flight was operated by a small ERJ-145 but is now operated by a mix of ERJ-145, CRJ-200s, and CRJ-700s (larger regional jets with first class and EconomyPlus).
Still, I was curious why cut Washington Dulles when United has made such a point of concentrating connections in Washington Dulles? And why abandon Los Angeles? Even if hub-to-hub, if American can operate up to 10 flights per day between Philadelphia and Los Angeles, can’t United operate at least one?
In response, United was very adamant at underscoring it was not retreating from the Philadelphia market.
Philadelphia continues to be an important destination in United’s route network. We continuously monitor the demand for business and leisure travel in all of the markets we serve and have made some adjustments to help us optimize our Philadelphia schedule and to better respond to customer demand for travel to/from Philadelphia.
Yes, boilerplate language I know.
United: We Are Growing In Philadelphia
But United defended its arguments by pointing to its strengthened service to/from Chicago, Denver, and Houston.
- With the March 2019 schedule, United’s planned capacity at Philadelphia will be higher than the same period the prior year (despite the IAD exit).
- From Denver, United added a third daily round trip in September of this year and will operate it through the end of the year. United will resume normal twice daily pattern after the peak holiday season but with a larger aircraft – resulting in a 20% year over year seat increase in January 2019 because of the larger 737-900 aircraft. United’s third flight between DEN and PHL is scheduled to return in spring 2019.
- From Houston, United will maintain four daily flights this winter instead of reducing to three as in years past. In April 2019, United will increase daily departures to five peak day flights.
- From Chicago, United will operate six round trips to PHL beginning in March 2019. United previously added this flight in the summer but is expanding to also include the spring season.
And by that metric, there is no argument that United is growing in Philadelphia. But take the Florida market, for example. It used to be easy to hop on a United flight to Dulles and quickly connect to Florida. Now going via Chicago is not going to make sense so passengers will have take a train (see below) or endure a much longer overall travel time via Chicago or Houston.
My point is that no one can argue United is abandoning Philadelphia–the numbers prove otherwise. But at the same time, the destinations matter, not just number of seats. I don’t question that United is losing money on IAD-PHL…it’s a rather silly flight for o/d traffic and fares were always too high to justify. But this was a feeder flight and sometimes you take a loss on one flight for greater gains on others.
For example, United was losing money on its premium service flights to/from SFO/LAX and JFK. But giving up those slots was such a mistake because it cost them larger corporate contracts who flew throughout the United network. Why? Because they were unwilling to fly to Newark instead of Kennedy and thus switched to American or Delta. United President Scott Kirby always says it is about the network, the network, the network. Well, if network is so important, United just made it much more difficult for many Philadelphia residents to fly to the U.S. Southeast and even to Europe.
I get why United cut the flight, but I also don’t get it…at least from my position as armchair CEO…
Just a final note that United also offers an Amtrak codeshare from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station (ZFV) to/from Newark. I did use this option several times during my last year in law school and it is not a bad one. Philadelphia residents can still book a United ticket that includes an Amtrak train segment with connection in Newark. It’s not a bad option if you live in Center City or University City.
Philadelphia is no New York or Boston, but it is a huge market. United is bulking up service to Chicago, Denver, and Houston and is growing at Philadelphia International in terms of overall seats offered. Still, with service to only three hubs United places many Philadelphia passengers in a difficult position when it comes to staying loyal.