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United Airlines expands down under with new route to Australia

June 8 2022
5 min read
United Airlines expands down under with new route to Australia
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United Airlines will soon become the first U.S. carrier to add a new transpacific destination since the start of the pandemic.

The Chicago-based airline was set to announce on Wednesday plans to connect its San Francisco (SFO) hub with Brisbane, Australia (BNE), on a new, 7,063-mile nonstop flight.

The route will launch on Oct. 28, and it'll operate year-round on a thrice-weekly basis.

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United had been touting the new route on social media with splashy countdown clocks that teased an announcement for 8 a.m. ET Wednesday.

The airline briefed media outlets in advance, including TPG, but details of the new service broke earlier after being announced by airport and regional authorities in Australia on Tuesday evening U.S. time.

Brisbane Airport Corporation CEO Gert-Jan de Graaff lauded United’s arrival as “a gamechanger for the tourism industry,” saying it would dramatically boost international capacity into the Australian state of Queensland that’s home to the airport.

United will use a 257-seat Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on the roughly 14-hour flight. The aircraft features 48 Polaris lie-flat pods, 21 Premium Plus recliners, 39 extra-legroom Economy Plus seats and 149 standard coach ones. The new flight will go on sale on Wednesday on the carrier's website and mobile app.

The Brisbane flight will join United's existing service to Australia: between Sydney (SYD) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and SFO and between Melbourne (MEL) and SFO. The carrier will also resume flights between MEL and LAX and between SYD and Houston (IAH) during the winter season.

United is already the leader of the U.S. airlines in connecting the mainland with Australia, and the new Brisbane flight further builds on that strength.

(Map courtesy of Cirium)

Executives at United often note that the carrier was the only one that did not suspend its Australia service during the pandemic — a talking point that Patrick Quayle, senior vice president of international network and alliances for United, repeated to TPG during an interview about the new route.

"We operated to Australia when times were the worst. It wasn't the carrier with the kangaroo on the tail that was flying back and forth between the United States and Australia. It was United Airlines, and it wasn't either one of the other U.S. carriers," Quayle added.

In fact, "I think of us as Australia's national carrier," he added, given that United was the one carrier to continue flying to Australia "even when load factors were like 20%."

As for the reasoning behind the new service, Quayle said it's "unlocked by our new partnership with Virgin Australia."

"We've looked at [adding Brisbane] many times in the past, but it did not work without a partner. And that's the value of what Virgin brings is it creates many more connecting opportunities for our passengers, as well as it gives all the Virgin customers fantastic feed" throughout North America and beyond, Quayle said.

United launched a new codeshare agreement with Virgin Australia on May 23, which marked a major rebound for the Brisbane-based carrier. Virgin entered voluntary administration — similar to Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S. — in April 2020 as travel plunged at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Following its restructuring, a much leaner Virgin Australia was later sold to Bain Capital. As part of the new ownership, a transpacific joint venture between Virgin Australia and its then-U.S. partner, Delta Air Lines, was suspended later in 2020.

Virgin Australia previously flew long-haul routes using Airbus A330s and Boeing 777-300ERs, but reorganized into a domestic carrier flying the Boeing 737 exclusively.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Asked about whether this move to add flights from San Francisco to Brisbane is simply just picking up Virgin's slack (it flew between LAX and BNE before the pandemic), Quayle noted: "I would say this is about trading win-win opportunities for both airlines, and really strengthening both airlines than looking at it as we're taking over Virgin's flight."

Adding Brisbane "diversifies the feed" in Australia, according to Quayle, meaning that customers won't need to fly to Sydney or Melbourne in order to connect to cities that are closer to Brisbane. Virgin Australia offers service from Brisbane to nearly 20 other Australian cities.

Following Australia's reopening, the demand for travel to the country has steadily ramped up, according to Quayle. It wasn't an instant "on-off" switch in terms of demand like the reopening was in other parts of the world, but the carrier is now filling its flights to Sydney and Melbourne, and adding Brisbane is "a gradual phase capacity increase," said Quayle.

Featured photo 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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