When you fly a plane with 30-50% fewer seats than the competition the business case must be incredibly strong. For United Airlines, the new “High J” 767-300ER configuration with 46 business class and 167 total seats allows the company to serve “an entirely different passenger profile” according to Patrick Quayle, United’s VP of International Network. That shift to premium business and leisure routes shows as the carrier announces a handful of new and expanded transatlantic routes for 2020 and beyond.
Newark, the primary transatlantic gateway for the carrier, will see the most significant boost in service. Daily seasonal service to Nice will launch on the High J 763 in May 2020, allowing passengers to visit for the Cannes Film Festival and throughout the peak summer travel season. Palermo, Sicily will also see daily seasonal service. United will be the only carrier offering daily nonstop service between Sicily and the United States.
A lot of these new routes are all focused on this premium-heavy 767-300ER. Having that aircraft and rethinking the network has let us expand where we had not in the past.– Patrick Quayle, United’s VP of International Network
In addition to the new routes United is also expanding its service to core business-focused destinations from the Newark hub. Frankfurt and Amsterdam will each see a second daily flight added. Frankfurt sees a higher premium offering, with the High J configuration aircraft year round. Amsterdam’s summer seasonal flight is on the 30J 763 layout.
From its O’Hare hub United is adding a seventh year-round European destination, bringing Zurich on to the route map. The route will, again, be served with the High J aircraft configuration. That route will join the Chicago-London service in flying exclusive on the premium-heavy configuration.
Further west, United will convert its Denver-London and San Francisco-Delhi routes from seasonal to year-round service.
The High J Value Proposition
United’s new long-haul fleet plan calls for a significant boost to the premium seats on offer. The High J configuration flies with 46 business class and 22 premium economy seats. Quayle describes a “premium leisure” focus for the company as it “expands the map to places that haven’t been tapped previously and finding some of our same passengers and also adding new passengers, with the right aircraft and the right offering.”
That layout is a relatively expensive configuration for the plane, far more so than what its competitors fly. But the lower total seat count allows United to shift its target demographic in these markets.
From an operating cost it is a more expensive aircraft. But it serves an entirely different passenger profile. If you look at the places where we’re flying the 757 it is more exploratory or more leisure destinations because it only has 16 business class seats. The [High J] 767-300ER we’re flying to Zurich, to Nice, to Heathrow five times a day. We’re taking that little aircraft off of routes where it doesn’t make sense and putting the business class on there. It better enables us to compete. And we’re using this aircraft to start new routes and we think the trade-off, as we have a lighter LOPA [seating density] is more than made up for with the revenue potential of the business class seats and the premium economy seats.
Growth, not shift
Quayle was clear that the new and expanded routes are being handled without cutting any existing services. The carrier expects to add 22 new wide-body planes to the fleet in the next 18 months, all with the new Polaris seat installed. Combined with the retrofits at roughly 30% complete the airline anticipates half of its 200 long-haul aircraft will be flying with the new seats by the end of 2019.
Moreover, United intends to resume all of the 2019 seasonal routes in 2020, including extending the season in some markets. Naples, Athens and Porto, in particular, proved strong for the carrier and get more flights from Newark in 2020. Dulles-Barcelona also gets an extra two weeks of service in 2020.
And, while the 737 MAX grounding has affected the company’s growth on domestic routes, Quayle also stated that it has not altered the international expansion efforts, “Overall the network is constrained but it did not hamper these routes.”
The Nice route faces competition from La Compagnie. The French all-business operator added the market earlier this year as its fleet expanded. Its 757-200s fly with 74 business class seats on board, giving it more total beds flying, though it does not operate the route daily this season. Its 2020 plans are unclear. In Denver the decision to go year-round on London offsets Norwegian’s seasonal suspension in that market; British Airways remains a year-round competitor.
The transatlantic market remains highly competitive, even as the LCC players stumble. United’s growth over the past 2 years, now with 26 new destinations, continues to demonstrate the carrier’s confidence in the ability to drive revenue and value across the pond.