United Airlines is adjusting its winter longhaul schedule this weekend. The story is not just the upgauges and downgauges, but the strategy behind them and the versatility of the United fleet.
First, let’s starts with the changes, which include a mix of downgauges (smaller aircraft) on route with reduced demand and upgauges (larger aircraft) on routes with greater demand. No routes will be suspended beyond what has already been announced.
- Los Angeles – Shanghai – 787-10 to 787-9 (from December 7, 2019 to January 31, 2020)
- Newark – Hong Kong – 777-300 to 777-200
- San Francisco – Beijing – 777-300 to 777-200
- San Francisco – Hong Kong – both flights will operate with a 777-200
- Houston – Rio de Janeiro – 767-300 to 767-400
- Houston – Santiago – 767-300 to 767-400
- Houston – Sao Paulo – 767-300 to 777-200
- Newark – Sao Paulo – 777-200 to 777-300
- Newark – Tel Aviv – 787-10 to 777-300 (daytime flight)
- San Francisco – Auckland – 777-200 to 787-10
- San Francisco – Frankfurt – 777-200 to 777-300 (evening flight)
- San Francisco – Tokyo Haneda – 787-9 to 787-10 (from January, 2020 to March, 2020)
I had a chat with Patrick Quayle, United’s Vice President of International Planning, about these changes. In laying them out, he underscored the agility of his team and their forecasting tools to make these changes so late in the game. We’re just weeks away from the start of the winter schedule. Even as United is already preparing the Winter 2020/2021 schedule, its modifications to this winter’s schedule suggest a new nimbleness that has not been possible in the past.
He also noted a broader underlying strategy emerging at United: time of day choice. United recently announced the addition of second daily flights to Amsterdam and Frankfurt from Newark. Despite reduced demand, a second daily San Francisco to Hong Kong flight is still coming. Twice-daily San Francisco to Frankfurt is now year-around and you can catch double daily flights from SFO to London, Seoul, or Singapore as well. And that’s just San Francisco.
Quayle explained that morning and evening departures keep business travelers on United. That’s self-apparent enough, but he used the example of “competition” to Hong Kong [Cathay Pacific] to note that otherwise loyal, lucrative business passengers who needed to leave in the evening might book away from United since its Hong Kong flights left in the morning. The new second SFO flight will depart SFO in the evening and leave HKG in the evening, allowing for greater flexibility.
As United learned with the foolish choice to abandon United JFK, sometimes you have to look beyond performance on a specific route or specific station to understand the ripple effects of offering consistent service with time of day choice. I asked if United could really sustain a second Hong Kong flight from SFO with civil unrest greatly reducing demand and was told that it was part of a longer-term investment.