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With new route to the Azores, United moves firmly past the 737 MAX's grounding

May 13, 2022
6 min read
United aircraft
With new route to the Azores, United moves firmly past the 737 MAX's grounding
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Look at United's five new — and unusual — seasonal routes and you'll notice something that stands out about the new service from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Ponta Delgada Airport (PDL), in Portugal's Azores islands, which kicks off on Friday night.

In a world of large 757s, 767s and 787s, this flight is the only one to be operated by a 737 MAX. In fact, it's the first time United — or any major U.S. carrier — is scheduling the workhorse 737 to fly transatlantically.

The 737 MAX 8 that will operate this route is something of a showpiece aircraft for the Chicago-based carrier, the first fleet to be fitted with its "United Next" interior which features seatback inflight entertainment screens (and the ability to pair them with Bluetooth headphones). United has also earmarked its MAX fleet for a set of special designs that promote key company priorities such as its Aviate pilot pathway program and sustainable aviation fuels. One — a MAX adorned with the phrases "Being United" and "United Together" — even serves as a flying thank you to United's pandemic-era workforce.

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It's also a plane that lacks lie-flat seats, a staple of the transatlantic market. However, a flight from the U.S. to the Azores spans only about 2,576 miles (and takes 5 hours and 45 minutes), which is shorter than some of United's West Coast-Hawaii flights likewise operated by 737s. Thus, the lack of lie-flat seats shouldn't cause an issue.

United won't be the first airline to serve this region — and its leisure-heavy market — with a cabin used normally on domestic routes.

Delta — the last U.S. carrier to fly non-stop to the Azores — operated to Ponta Delgada from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) using a 757 that lacked lie-flat seats during the summers of 2018 and 2019. Icelandair has long flown the short, leisure-heavy Atlantic crossings to and from its hub in Keflavik (KEF) using 757s and 767s and, more recently, the 737 MAX. Before its long-haul demise, Norwegian also flew the MAX from the Northeast region of the U.S. to Europe.

"We put the 737 on it based on the economics and based on the performance of the aircraft," Patrick Quayle, United’s head of international network planning, told TPG in an interview. "We've been looking at the Azores for a while now. But really, it was finding the right economic machine to match the revenue environment that we think is out there. And so, because the 737 is that more efficient than the 757 — which is what Delta flew when they flew it previously, and that was the other alternative for us — we think the economics will warrant it and do well."

United will brand the pointy end of the plane as United Premium Plus, its international premium economy product. This will make it the only mainline United route to lack a cabin that is branded as first or business class. It also means that ticketed passengers will lack access to the United Club (let alone a Polaris Lounge), unless they're otherwise eligible by holding Star Alliance Gold status (via United or another carrier) or a membership.

United will brand the first-class cabin on its 737 MAX 8 as United Premium Plus for its new flight to Ponta Delgada. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

But there's more to the story. Just two years ago, it would have been unthinkable for United to run the 737 MAX on a transatlantic route.

The MAX was grounded globally after accidents in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. Congressional hearings were held and criminal investigations were opened. Something was very wrong with this aircraft — and the public had taken notice. After a lengthy recertification process that involved fixing the MAX's flight control system and adding redundancies, the aircraft began to get recertified at the end of 2020. Among U.S. carriers, American Airlines brought the plane back first, in December 2020. United brought it back in February of 2021.

At first, managers across the industry were worried that the public would be uncomfortable flying the MAX. Boeing had even created public relations materials that would help its airline customers reintroduce the plane.

But after weathering a pandemic, the flying public now doesn’t seem concerned about avoiding the MAX — at United or elsewhere – following a largely uneventful reintroduction of the aircraft.

More: United’s international-focused summer begins today with five unusual new routes

"There's no resistance to the aircraft," Quayle said. "Our passengers accept it, our pilots love it. No one thinks twice when they get on a MAX aircraft."

Airlines are backing up that sentiment with their wallets, too.

Since the aircraft's re-entry into service, both Southwest and United — and several international carriers — have placed massive orders for the aircraft. Even Allegiant Air — an all Airbus operator — has ordered the plane.

Southwest, United and Alaska have all been flying the 737 MAX over the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii since last summer. In fact, the route from Newark to Ponta Delgada is just 20 miles longer than the route from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL). Alaska and Southwest use the plane on other routes to Hawaii that are even longer than the Newark to the Azores trip; routes include Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to HNL and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) to HNL.

As far as perception goes, flying to Europe might be a bigger deal than flying to Hawaii. Transatlantic crossings are international affairs, with customers historically expecting more service on such routes. It also means customers might pay more attention to the type of aircraft – and seating options – available on the flight.

But United remains unconcerned. And, if the MAX service to the Azores is a success for the carrier, United could double down and use the aircraft for new routes to other secondary seasonal markets in Europe.

Additional reporting by David Slotnick.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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