Ever since Pan Am announced plans to sell its Pacific routes to United in 1985, United has been the one to beat in the Pacific. Over the years, the strategy has evolved, and now United is evolving once again. It sees big opportunity in creating more time choice for travelers by opening up a second bank of flying to complement the original.
Though United does fly to the Pacific from all of its hubs, San Francisco has long been the airline’s gateway of choice. It’s in San Francisco where United has grown to serve the most routes with the most frequency not just to Asia but also to Oceania. San Francisco is by far the best Pacific hub for any US airline despite regular efforts by both Delta and American to find their own niches.
If we go back a mere 10 years, United’s San Francisco network was a mere shell of what it is today. United flew to 5 cities in Asia once a day, Tokyo/Narita twice a day, and then there was a single daily flight down to Sydney. There were additional flights connecting via Tokyo/Narita to Bangkok, Singapore, and Seoul/Incheon as a legacy that came out of the spoils of war.
Fast forward to the end of this year and it’s remarkably different. Notably, the Narita hub is gone completely, at least on United aircraft. The airline has continued to tighten its relationship with ANA at both Narita and Haneda to help build connectivity further.
As for United itself in Asia alone, the airline hopes to fly to six destinations from San Francisco daily with another 1 less than daily and a whopping four twice daily.
That growth in Asia is overshadowed by something further south. The biggest growth for United has been in Oceania where the airline has grown from a single daily flight to Sydney to now cover six destinations. Sydney is now twice a day.
I say this is what United plans to fly, because it’s unlikely to stick. Those dashed lines are to China, and due to the dispute between the US and China, the likelihood of United being able to fly more than the existing 4x weekly flights it has to Shanghai is slim to none anytime in the near future. So, take those out if you like, but it’s still massive growth.
While the route map looks more expansive than it did before, there’s something equally important here. The traditional pattern for San Francisco – Asia flying was to leave in the late morning from San Francisco and arrive during the afternoon. Then United would return in the afternoon, arriving back at San Francisco in the morning.
Now with this expansion over the last few years, United has been able to create a significant second bank that operates at night. Sydney always operated on this schedule — as nearly all Australia/New Zealand flights do — with a night departure from San Francisco, but nothing else did back in 2013. Now, it’s very different.
United San Francisco Departures to the Pacific by Time of Day
As I mentioned, all of that new Australia/New Zealand leaves SFO at night, so it helps give the hub heft. With that additional heft, United can then look at adding more domestic feed. And with all that domestic feed, United can then add additional flights in the overnight hours into Asia to create a better offering for customers that’s hard to beat.
The airline’s new second daily flight to Taipei that was just announced will operate at night. The new Manila flight will do the same. Hong Kong and Singapore have their second flights at night as well.
United has all those big widebodies coming into the airline on order, so it needs to find opportunities that will support year-round utilization of those expensive assets. United now really becomes the only US airline to have two notable banks over the Pacific, and that should help drive more customers toward United.
Even better for United, much of this comes on the strength of demand in that San Francisco hub. It will be impossible for American to duplicate this — it can’t even figure out how to operate a single bank to Asia from anywhere. And for Delta, it’s also going to be a real challenge up in Seattle. It will likely instead continue to lean further on its partner Korean Air in Seoul/Incheon for the bulk of its connectivity.
For United, it’s a big win, assuming it works. The airline can continue to grow, better utilize the SFO hub, and create a competitive advantage over the Pacific.