Where United Airlines is reducing (and adding) seats this winter

Sep 16, 2019

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United Airlines is flexing its fleet muscle this winter, moving aircraft around its global network in response to demand.

All of the Star Alliance carrier’s flights to Hong Kong (HKG), where protests have challenged Chinese government policies in the special administrative region, will be flown with Boeing 777-200ER aircraft instead of larger 777-300ERs. The switch will be made on the  flight between Newark (EWR) and Hong Kong from Dec. 3 through Mar. 27.

At the same time, United will shift its 777-300ER to flights between Newark and São Paulo Guarulhos (GRU). The Brazilian airport is a growing base for the airline’s partner Azul.

The Chicago-based airline configures its updated international 777-200ERs with 276 seats, including 50 Polaris business class seats, compared to 350 seats on its 777-300ERs, including 60 Polaris seats.

These winter changes, and others that were loaded in schedules over the weekend, are an example of United being “nimble,” as the airline’s vice-president of international network Patrick Quayle told TPG.

“We’re skating to where the puck is going, not where the puck has been,” he said. The changes do not affect previously announced new routes, including services to Tokyo Haneda (HND) in March and Europe next summer.

Related: United Adding Exciting New International Flights From Chicago, Denver, Newark and SFO

United has a varied, and growing, wide-body fleet. In addition to the two 777 variants, it operates Boeing 767-300ERs and -400ERs, as well as Boeing 787-8s, -9s and -10s. The carrier’s latest fleet plan anticipates 196 wide-body aircraft by year-end, 10 more than at the end of 2018.

The Hong Kong changes are only the tip of the China adjustments.

  • Los Angeles (LAX) – Shanghai Pudong (PVG): 787-9 replaces 787-10, Dec. 7-Jan. 31
  • San Francisco (SFO) – Beijing Capital (PEK): 777-200 replaces 777-300ER, Feb. 13-March 27
  • San Francisco – Shanghai: 787-9 replaces 777-200 on both frequencies, Dec. 15-March 27

United configures its 787-9s with 252 seats and its 787-10s with 318 seats.

Related: Exciting New Airline Routes for August 2019 and Beyond

“We see weakness in China, Hong Kong is terrible, Argentina is pretty bad also, but the rest of the world is somewhere between OK and good,” United president Scott Kirby said at a Morgan Stanley investor conference Sept. 12. “Fundamentally, there’s always someplace in the world… that’s bad and some[place] that’s good. There’s a lot more good than bad.”

The carrier will also downgauge its daily flight between San Francisco and Auckland (AKL) to a 787-10 from a 777-300ER. All of its flights between the U.S. and New Zealand operate under a joint venture with Air New Zealand.

United has to fly its larger wide-body aircraft somewhere. In addition to São Paulo, the airline will add seats to Frankfurt (FRA), Tel Aviv (TLV) and Tokyo Haneda.

  • Newark –  Tel Aviv: 777-300ER replaces 787-10 on one frequency, Dec. 3-Mar. 27
  • San Francisco – Frankfurt: 777-300ER replaces 777-200 on one frequency, Feb. 12-Mar. 27
  • San Francisco – Haneda: 787-10 replaces 787-9, Jan. 6-Mar. 27

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While Quayle cited a nimbleness afforded by United’s varied wide-body fleet and global operations, airlines always make some form of seasonal capacity adjustments to better match seats to demand. This often comes in the form of some sort of capacity reduction to markets with low winter demand, to Europe for example, and an increase in markets with high winter demand, like to South America. In addition, airlines often use less-intense winter schedules to perform regular maintenance on aircraft.

Quayle, asked what is different about the aircraft changes this winter versus past winter seasons, said it’s a combination of factors. At the top of that list is that he has had control of United’s international network for over two years now and has had time to really put this “thumb prints” on the map. In addition, the airline has implemented numerous processes and developed internal relationships that make seasonal fleet flexibility feasible.

Quayle joined United in February 2017 as part of the new management team under CEO Oscar Munoz, who took over the reins from Jeff Smisek in September 2015. This strategy includes hiring Scott Kirby from American Airlines, where he was part of the team that orchestrated American’s merger with US Airways in 2013.

United plans to grow system capacity by roughly 3-4% year-over-year this year, and a further 4-6% in 2020.

Featured image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy.

Related: 16 Rows of Biz: Reviewing Polaris on United’s ‘High-J’ 767-300ER


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