United Airlines is bringing its 787 Dreamliner fleet to Chicago. The carrier announced today that it will base some of the Dreamliner fleet at its hometown hub and also establish a pilot crew base to support those operations. The company expects that the bulk of the initial operations will launch in March 2020 as the IATA seasonal schedule shifts.
The O’Hare Dreamliner fleet will feature the new Polaris business class seats and Premium Plus premium economy cabin on board.
The 787s (mostly –10s and retrofit –9s to start) are expected to displace 777 service to Europe from O’Hare, with Frankfurt, Brussels and Munich as the initial destinations according to communications with the pilot union. The current plans expect growth in the 787 destinations for Chicago deeper into the summer and beyond. To support these flights the company will open 787 pilot bids in October for a March effective date. The expectation is for 35 Captains and 60 First Officers to be included in the first staffing, with more to follow as the fleet and destination range grows.
As these planes are displacing the 777s in O’Hare the pilot base there will shrink. APLA expects to transition 20 Captains and 70 First Officers out of the O’Hare domicile as part of the transition. In addition to the 787 displacement the union cites the suspension of the Chicago-Hong Kong route, operated on a 777, as a justification for the reduced crew needs at that location. Among other challenges for pilots with the fleet shift, the union expects that it could take until 2021 for seniority levels to sufficiently balance if a 777 pilot transitioned to the 787 at that new base.
The shifting 787 fleet distribution does raise some questions around how the company will handle fleet utilization and spare aircraft allocation. Especially with the different interior configurations on the –9s – some with Premium Plus and some without – United could be in trouble if an aircraft gets out of position or suffers a maintenance issue. That said, the fleet continues to grow with new deliveries in 2019 and 2020. Plus the retrofits are running smoothly enough that the overall number should be sufficient to keep O’Hare running.
As for the 777s, it remains unclear where they will shift to in Summer 2020 as a result of the O’Hare Dreamliner growth. San Francisco for Asia service seems a likely option though that is not yet confirmed.