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

Aug 12, 2020

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United Airlines will add 17 routes to Florida that bypass its traditional hubs this winter, joining other carriers that are breaking the traditional rules of network planning amid the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chicago-based Star Alliance carrier will connect Boston (BOS), New York LaGuardia (LGA) and Cleveland (CLE) with Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Fort Myers (RSW), Orlando (MCO) and Tampa (TPA) beginning Nov. 6, United said on Wednesday. And on Dec. 17, the airline will add nonstop flights connecting Columbus (CMH), Indianapolis (IND), Milwaukee (MKE) and Pittsburgh (PIT) with Fort Myers; and Milwaukee with Tampa.

All of the new routes are short-lived. United plans to end them on Jan. 10, 2021 but may extend them based on demand, spokesperson Jonathan Guerin told TPG.

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Regardless, the routes are a strategic break for United. The carrier has almost exclusively only added new flights between U.S. cities and one of its seven hubs — Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Denver (DEN), Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH), Los Angeles (LAX), Newark (EWR), San Francisco (SFO) and Washington Dulles (IAD) — since its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010.

However, COVID-19 has turned conventional airline models on their heads. Carriers are trying to find any way to get would-be travelers onto planes, including adding flights between cities where they traditionally lack any sizable presence.

“The addition of these new flights represents United’s largest expansion of point-to-point, non-hub flying,” Ankit Gupta, vice president of domestic network planning at United said in a statement. “[It] reflects our data driven approach to add capacity where customers are telling us they want to go.”

Related: United Airlines worries travel recovery will stall until there’s a COVID vaccine

U.S. airlines are struggling to fill planes. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening data shows the number of flyers down around 70% compared to 2019, even during what is traditionally the end of the peak summer travel season.

Carriers are gearing up for what J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker has called the “autumn of discontent.” The leisure travelers that have filled planes this summer historically stay home after Labor Day with business flyers taking their place. However, corporate travel is not expected to return in any meaningful way until at least 2021.

“We expect the recovery in demand we’ll see to be jagged,” United CEO Scott Kirby said on July 22. He added that the airline does not expect air travel to recover beyond about half of 2019 levels until a vaccine is widely available, something he hopes for by the end of 2021.

Related: Which US airlines are blocking middle seats and requiring masks?

And the prognosis for a full recovery is even more dire. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) does not expect air travel to fully recover, or return to 2019 flyer numbers, until 2024.

In September, United plans to fly about 37% of what it flew during the month in 2019. This is largely the result of its large exposure to international markets — not to mention business travel — that remain largely closed due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

United is working to assure travelers that flying is safe. United has strict mask requirements onboard its aircraft and in airport terminals, and has stepped up onboard cleaning with enhanced protocols and electrostatic spraying.

Related: United Airlines adds 5 new regional routes from Denver, Houston

It’s not the first time United has tried connecting Orlando to points other than its hubs. From 1991 to 1993, the airline attempted to build a small Orlando hub with nonstops to destinations including Boston and New York LaGuardia.

Below are details of United’s 17 new routes.

Boston Logan

  • Fort Lauderdale: up to twice daily on Boeing 737-800s
    • Competition: Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines
  • Fort Myers: up to twice daily on an Airbus A320
    • Competition: Delta, Frontier Airlines and JetBlue
  • Orlando: up to twice daily on an A320 and 737-800
    • Competition: Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and Spirit
  • Tampa: up to twice daily on a 737-800
    • Competition: Delta, Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit

Cleveland

  • Fort Lauderdale: up to twice daily on a 737-800, previously flown seasonally
    • Competition: JetBlue and Spirit
  • Fort Myers: up to twice daily on a 737-800, previously flown seasonally
    • Competition: Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit
  • Orlando: up to twice daily on a 737-800, previously flown seasonally
    • Competition: Frontier, Southwest and Spirit
  • Tampa: up to once daily on an Embraer E175
    • Competition: Frontier and Spirit

Columbus

  • Fort Myers: five-flights weekly on an E175
    • Competition: Southwest and Spirit

Indianapolis

  • Fort Myers: once daily on an A320
    • Competition: Southwest and Spirit

Milwaukee

  • Fort Myers: five-flights weekly on an A319
    • Competition: Frontier and Southwest
  • Tampa: five-flights weekly on an A319
    • Competition: Frontier and Southwest

New York LaGuardia

  • Fort Lauderdale: up to twice daily on A320s
    • Competition: Delta, JetBlue and Spirit
  • Fort Myers: up to twice daily on a 737-800
    • Delta and JetBlue
  • Orlando: up to twice daily on A320s
    • Competition: American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue and Spirit
  • Tampa: up to twice daily on a 737-800
    • Competition: Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit

Pittsburgh

  • Fort Myers: once daily on an E175

Featured image by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

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