United Airlines adds 3 Africa routes, Delhi and Bangalore as part of 7-route expansion

Sep 9, 2020

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United Airlines is using the coronavirus pandemic to make bold changes to its international route map.

The Chicago-based Star Alliance carrier will add three new destinations in Africa — Accra, Ghana (ACC); Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB); and Lagos, Nigeria (LOS) — amid a seven-route expansion that begins later this year and continues into 2021, United vice president of international network and alliances Patrick Quayle told TPG in an exclusive interview. In one fell swoop, United will go from one seasonal destination on the continent to four, three of which will boast year-round service.

United’s other new routes include nonstop service between Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and both Delhi (DEL) and Kona (KOA); Newark (EWR) and Kahului (OGG) on Maui; and San Francisco (SFO) and Bangalore, India (BLR). The last destination, Bangalore, is new to the United map.

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“We are repositioning the network,” Quayle told TPG. “What we’re doing is accelerating our long-term plans.”

The additions come as United faces a challenging international travel environment. Border restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 remain the norm rather than the exception with plans to resume flights constantly changing — often with little notice — due to these limits.

In October, the airline only plans to fly about a third of its international schedule a year ago. But even with a third of flights operating, many destinations remain suspended, including Auckland (AKL) — home to United’s joint venture partner Air New Zealand — Madrid (MAD), Rome (FCO) and Santiago, Chile (SCL).

Related: United Airlines bets on Hawaii, Mexico beaches in October schedule

Two major airline trade groups — Airlines for America (A4A) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — say they do not expect global air travel to return to 2019 levels until at least 2024.

In a glimmer of good news, United saw a “moderate improvement in bookings” for U.S. domestic and short-haul Latin America and Caribbean leisure travel at the end of August, it said in a securities filing on Thursday.

Despite the positive travel news and the new routes, United’s plan to furlough up to 16,370 staff — including 6,920 flight attendants — on Oct. 1 remains in place, according to United spokesperson Josh Earnest.

Related: A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

“Europe will be different next summer,” Quayle said when asked where the planes to fly the new routes will come from. “We’re reallocating where we’re putting capacity.”

While he declined to say how United’s Europe flying will look different in 2021 compared to 2019, airlines historically have retreated to flying primarily to partner hubs plus major cities like London and Paris during previous crises. For United, this could mean flights come back at hubs like Frankfurt (FRA), Munich (MUC) and Zurich (ZRH) first before to other cities.

All of United’s new routes announced Wednesday will be flown with Boeing 787 jets — the new “workhorse” of its long-haul fleet — except for the Newark-Kahului route. That will be flown with a 767-300ER with United’s standard configuration with 30 Polaris business class seats — and not the so-called “high-J” layout with 46 Polaris seats.

Related: American, Delta and United plan to add 15 long-haul international routes in September

Accra and Lagos are not current United destinations, but they’re not new to United’s map. The airline served Accra from its Washington Dulles (IAD) hub — as it will again with the new service — from 2010 to 2012, according to Cirium schedules. It flew to Lagos from its Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH) hub from 2012 to 2015.

United will be the second U.S. carrier serving Accra, Johannesburg and Lagos after Delta Air Lines. Delta, for its part, plans to add service this fall to Cape Town (CPT), currently United’s sole destination in Africa.

In addition, United’s new service to Bangalore comes as competitor American Airlines plans to launch service to the Indian tech hub from Seattle (SEA) in 2021. American’s new route is part of a renewed and expanded partnership with Alaska Airlines, which is based in Seattle.

Related: United Airlines adds 17 routes to Florida, bypassing hubs in pandemic route-map shakeup

Below is a list of United’s seven new routes.

  • Chicago – Delhi: daily on a 787-9 beginning Dec. 2020
  • Chicago – Kona: four-times weekly on a 787-8 beginning Summer 2021
  • Newark – Johannesburg: daily on a 787-9 beginning Spring 2021
  • Newark – Kahului: four-times weekly on a 767-300ER beginning Summer 2021
  • San Francisco – Bangalore: daily on a 787-9 beginning Spring 2021
  • Washington – Accra: three-times weekly on a 787-8 beginning Spring 2021
  • Washington – Lagos: three-times weekly on a 787-8 beginning Spring 2021

Featured image by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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