United Airlines cargo planes to share space again with passengers

White jets with blue tails from United Airlines on the taxiways at Houston Airport.

United Airlines’ (NYSE: UAL) decision to convert some cargo-only flights between Asia and San Francisco to passenger service and resume nonstop service between the West Coast city and Shanghai will provide some much-needed capacity and speed for businesses desperate to move goods by air.

United said Friday that its three weekly passenger-freighter flights between Taipei, Taiwan, and San Francisco will change to passenger flights and that mini-freighter flights between San Francisco and Seoul, South Korea, will also revert to passenger flights at an increased frequency of five times per week.

United Cargo has operated more than 6,300 temporary freighter flights since mid-March using Boeing 777 and 787 airplanes sidelined after the coronavirus eviscerated most travel demand, helping transport more than 213 million pounds of medical supplies and general cargo worldwide. 

Jan Krems, United’s cargo chief, foreshadowed the transition from cargo to passenger flights in a recent interview. Supply chain flows are driving international route selection until enough travelers make it financially worthwhile to layer on passenger service. Passenger loads are not clear yet, but likely are not sufficient to make the flights profitable without strong cargo bookings. The twin-aisle planes deployed by United are very large and don’t sacrifice much cargo space by adding passengers, especially when load factors remain lower than normal.

On Sunday, United also announced it will operate four weekly nonstop flights between Shanghai and San Francisco with 777-300 Extended Range aircraft, eliminating the existing stopover in Seoul to change crews. Prior to suspending service in February due to the coronavirus outbreak, United offered more service to China than any other U.S. carrier, including five daily flights between Shanghai and its San Francisco hub.

“We are able to resume nonstop service between San Francisco and Shanghai due to a combination of both government and internal United Airlines testing and accommodation requirements to ensure we can safely operate,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said when contacted.

China was slow to allow United and other U.S. carriers from resuming flights over concerns about reintroducing COVID-19 from an outbreak hot spot, leading to diplomatic tensions and reciprocal flight restrictions on Chinese airlines. China eventually approved more flights, but United initially opted to route flights through Seoul, beginning in early September, to avoid aggressive Chinese health checks and quarantine requirements for crews.

November schedule increase

The change in the cargo-passenger mix was part of a broader announcement that United will resume service on 29 international routes in November, operating 38% of its schedule compared to November 2019. Service additions include Denver-Frankfurt, Germany (three times per week), Houston-Frankfurt (increased to five weekly) and Houston-Rio de Janeiro (three times per week). The carrier is also rebuilding its network by offering popular leisure destinations in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Central America and Mexico. 

The Chicago-based airline’s international capacity is six points more than offered in October. 

Overall, United plans to operate 44% of its schedule, up four points from October as the company dials back domestic service in response to ongoing outbreaks of coronavirus and fewer bookings. 

Domestically, United said it intends to fly 49% of its schedule compared to last November, highlighted by the resumption and introduction of service from several cities to destinations in Florida. 

United, and other airlines, have shrunk operations to save money until travel demand increases. United has been particularly careful about calibrating capacity to travel demand, especially with decreased bookings after the post-Labor Day start of the school year and virtually nonexistent corporate travel. United last week furloughed more than 13,000 employees after the U.S. Congress failed to extend for six months a payroll support program. 

Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch. Contact: ekulisch@freightwaves.com / Twitter: @ericreports


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