United Airlines nurses international operations back to health

United Airlines jets line up along taxiway to take off at Houston airport. United is increasing its international schedule.

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) said Friday it will increase international capacity in September by 5% from its August level, including the addition of nearly 30 international routes, as it tries to carefully rebuild its network in a financially sustainable way. 

The Chicago-based carrier intends to add passenger routes to Asia, India, Australia, Israel and Latin America, which is expected to also help shippers move freight on desirable widebody aircraft that are in global short supply because the COVID pandemic has severely disrupted travel. 

United will launch new nonstop service between Chicago and Tel Aviv, Israel, and resume eight routes in the Atlantic and Pacific, including the return of European service from Houston with flights to Amsterdam and Frankfurt, Germany. It is also resuming service to Hawaii and to popular vacation destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean and Costa Rica. 

Domestically, United plans to fly 40% of its schedule in September compared to 2019, adding more than 40 daily flights on 48 routes.

Overall, the airline will have 37% of its passenger capacity in play versus the same period last year, a 4% increase from the August level. To help attract gun-shy customers, United is extending its waiver of change fees and award redeposit fees for reservations through Aug. 31.

United has been very careful about not ratcheting up service too quickly before demand justifies the cost of operating new flights. Last week it announced a $1.6 billion net loss, with officials indicating that capacity will be down two-thirds from last year in the third quarter.

“We continue to be realistic in our approach to building back our international and domestic schedules by closely monitoring customer demand and flying where people want to go,” said Patrick Quayle, vice president of international network and alliances, in a news release. 

Highlights of the updated international schedule include:

  • Launching brand-new service between Chicago and Tel Aviv (subject to government approval).
  • Resuming service between Chicago and Amsterdam.
  • Resuming service between Houston and Amsterdam and Frankfurt.
  • Resuming service between San Francisco and Munich.
  • Increasing to daily service between Chicago and Frankfurt, and between San Francisco and London.
  • Continuing service between the United States and New Delhi and Mumbai, India (subject to government approval).
  • Restarting thrice-weekly service between Los Angeles and Sydney, and passenger service between Chicago and Hong Kong (subject to government approval).
  • Starting new service between San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Chicago. 
  • Increasing the number of flights between Houston and Quito, Ecuador.

United currently flies five times per week between San Francisco and Hong Kong, and has daily cargo-only flights from Hong Kong to Los Angeles and Chicago. All make technical stops in Guam or Tokyo to change crews. Service to Hong Kong remains a wild card because of ongoing concerns about aggressive coronavirus testing and quarantine measures in the city that potentially could put crews out of action against their will.

United has made up for a large amount of lost cargo capacity in passenger aircraft by turning many Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft into mini-freighters that operate exclusively for cargo customers. The passenger-freighter operation has been a huge success for the company so far, boosting cargo revenues by more than a third during the second quarter compared to the same period last year.

Airlines are trying to encourage people to fly again by showcasing COVID precautions and sanitary methods they’ve adopted, lowering prices, and allowing cancellations under certain circumstances, but uncertainty about the resurgence of the novel coronavirus underscores the tentative nature of reintroducing flights. Certain parts of the world are slowly reopening borders and lifting travel restrictions, but when cases increase in certain countries other governments reimpose restrictions that disrupt air travel.

Austrian Airlines, for example, on Friday said it will expand its summer schedule with 15 additional destinations after the Austrian government agreed to let landing bans for flights from several countries, including Great Britain, expire. But new entry regulations forced the airline to remove flights to Shanghai and Tel Aviv from its August schedule.

Click here to read more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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