Is This The Strangest Flight Schedule You’ve Seen?

Filed Under: United

Those of you familiar with transcontinental travel in North America are generally well aware that there’s really no ideal option for traveling from west to east.

There are essentially four schools of thought on flying west to east:

  • I generally prefer to leave early in the morning, which usually means I’m deprived of sleep the night before, but at least arrive at my destination in the mid-afternoon. Most of the major airlines have a flight in the 6:00am hour leaving the West Coast, arriving to the East Coast before 3pm. You don’t get the whole day at your destination, but you at least get the late afternoon and you’re there in plenty of time to get ready for dinner, an evening out, etc.
  • The bulk of West-to-East flights tend to leave mid-morning or so, arriving after 5pm East Coast time and often quite a bit later. I prefer these flights less because, while I’m getting a better sleep the night before, I’m essentially “missing” an entire day on the plane, and not even making it to my destination in time for a dinner reservation.
  • My next best preference after an early morning flight would be a mid-to-early-late afternoon flight, which allows me to put in at least a semblance of a workday in California and generally puts me on the East Coast around midnight or so, which is late, but at least allows me to sleep in a real bed when I arrive.
  • personally dread the redeye but it certainly does make logistical sense for many people and is, in some cases, unavoidable. You have your full day, you fly while you’d otherwise be sleeping in bed, and you land just after dawn on the East Coast, with an entire day ahead of you. It’s by far the worst option for sleeping (even if you can manage to conk yourself out in-flight, you’ll only get a solid 4 1/2 hours at best).

Logistically speaking, there’s a void in the flight schedule for eastbound departures from the mid-afternoon until the late evening, when the early redeyes start to take off for arrival the next morning, simply because it makes little operational sense to land in the East Coast in the middle of the night.


Anyway, I happened to be checking flights for around the holidays in December, and noticed a flight that could best be described as an “outlier” (which, unsurprisingly, had plenty of award seats on United).

In December, United flight 783 departs Los Angeles at 6:49pm and arrives at Washington Dulles at 2:37am.

Is it supposed to be a late-afternoon flight marketed at those wanting a full workday but the opportunity to sleep in a bed in their destination that “same night”?

Or is it marketed as a super-early redeye?

Maybe I’m more surprised by this flight schedule than I need be, but it seems like a flight that’s convenient to no one. Seems like you could still accommodate those working a full day with a ~6pm departure, which would at least put you at Dulles before 2am.

I did some cursory research and this appears to be the latest-departing eastbound flight from the West Coast which isn’t a redeye. If any OMAAT readers have seen even later non-redeye flights, please chime in!

Other airlines have early-morning arrivals (there’s an American flight from LAX to Boston that lands at 2:15am, and a United flight to Newark that lands at 2:09am) but for some reason landing at nearly a quarter to 3am strikes me as useless, especially since Dulles is a solid 40 minute drive from anywhere civilized.

The dreaded Dulles Mobile Lounge
The dreaded Dulles Mobile Lounge

(Not to mention that landing at the United gates at Dulles means a long walk to the train or a godforsaken mobile lounge ride to the main terminal, so tack on another 15 minutes for that.)

I realize a ~2:45am arrival is doable for many people, but for me it seems very odd for a domestic route.

Does this flight make sense to you? How do you prefer to fly West to East in North America?

  1. I’d rather fly home after meetings (even if that means an ungodly early arrival time) rather than spending an additional night or hanging out at the airport for a real redeye. Not sure why this is so surprising. Could also be a utilization thing.

  2. I’m guessing it just maximizes the day on the west coast while still not requiring spending an extra night (and a night in a hotel) out there.

    Still not my preferred flight.

  3. As someone who goes up to the Pacific Northwest from DFW each week (SEA and PDX) I honestly get quite annoyed with how my direct flight options back home are only 1pm or a red-eye. I end up often taking a 6pm to PHX and connecting on to DFW, landing at 2am. This way I am in a real bed by 3am and get my 4 hours of sleep there. I consider it a lesser of two evils – after all if I wait for a midnight departing red eye I just sit in a lounge for 4-5 hours to attempt to get 3 hours of sleep on a 737 – might as well take an indirect routing home and get more miles. I think these “early” red-eye options are way undervalued.

  4. I would guess it’s scheduled this way for maximizing equipment utilization on a heavy demand day. It probably operates only on the heaviest dates using an aircraft that might otherwise remain on the ground overnight. There may be a really late IAD-LAX balancing it the same day, or else a very early morning return the next day. I’ve noticed that UA’s schedule fluctuates a great deal, presumably to maximize production on high demand days.

  5. As someone who lives less than 40 minutes from Dulles in northern Virginia, I think it is a bit unfair to characterize us as uncivilized…but you are, of course, entitled to think so!

  6. I haven’t had to travel from DC to West Coast for work weekly yet (only halfway across the country for me…), but I would take this flight (well, if it were on AA and came to DCA). I could much better stomach the cross country commute if I could get Thursday night, erm, Friday morning, in my bed as opposed to on a plane. 100% of the time.

    All of this is assuming that my client did not appreciate me leaving at 1 pm on a Thursday.

  7. @lopere: Thanks for doing the math. But what’s 2:15am? Not the arrival time of the flight in question.

  8. “Dulles is a solid 40 minute drive from anywhere civilized”

    Haha, you’re going to piss off a lot of people by writing that, but as a Marylander, I have to agree 🙂

  9. @Rick: You’re from the right side of the Potomac, I see (as am I, hence my regard for where civilization begins).

  10. I would take that flight, yes the arrival time sucks, But there would be less traffic If I took an Uber or Taxi from the airport into Downtown, Arrive home around 4.30am and then go to sleep.

  11. @Nick @Rick Considering the heart of the nation’s capitol is a 40-minute drive from IAD (at 2:37 a.m. anyways), can’t imagine that uncivilized area is what you had in mind.

  12. When you find yourself using a phrase like “mid-to-early-late afternoon,” you should just say what hours of the day you’re talking about with numbers.

  13. I love it! I wish more west -> east routes had an early evening departure.

    For the “consultant” world out there, most head home on Thursday afternoon/evening, but a lot of clients don’t like when you leave Thursday at 11:00 AM to grab a flight back home, especially when you didn’t get there until Monday afternoon. If I could get a whole (or most of the day) work-day in and then fly home, I’d do that 10X before I’d take an early morning flight the next day or a red-eye.

  14. @Nick if you think that BWI is civilized you have lost all sense of credibility. You have wasted minutes of our time that we will never get back, and may God have mercy on your soul.

    Also Loudon County is right next to IAD, but maybe one of the most wealthy counties in the country isn’t deemed civilized…

  15. two thoughts:

    (1) I’ve often resented needing to wait until 11 to hop on a plane on the West Coast to get home to my very civilized home within 40 minutes of Dulles – I’d tolerate a 2:45 am arrival at times.

    (2) Might this improve UA’s aircraft utilization?

  16. You live in hotels… but people like me don’t want an extra night in one. This allows almost a full work-day and yet arrive home to sleep in your own bed. Sure, one may sleep-in till 9 AM and then go to work, but better than another night at a hotel.

  17. This particular flight? No. I’m a night owl, but even this one is a no-go unless the price is right. I live about 10 minutes from IAD, and I’m still not getting to bed much before 4am. When looking at the BOS and EWR flights, I do think you’re quibbling over time differences that are less than half of an hour, though.

  18. Actually took this flight in July, but it landed at 02:04 AM. Arrived at D gates next to Mobile Lounge dock. In less than 10 minutes we were at Main Terminal well ahead of the the luggage, so stop complaining about the Mobile Lounges. Either way Lounge or AeroTrain you get there quickly and still have to wait for checked luggage.

    Anyhow, the flight was great. It was a dinner flight too!!! With awesome flight attendants. Groundlink service was awesome, which turned out the driver was also my Uber driver! Even after luggage wait was home in less than an hour after arrival and I live in Southern Maryland exactly 39 miles from Dulles.

  19. The are a couple of international flights that arrive from Asia & the Pacific region during mid to late afternoon timeframe so this flight provides a decent connection to the Capital. Connecting off a long haul the actual local time doesn’t make much difference you just want to get on your way.

  20. My favorite is the 3-5pm departures that get me back to BOS around 12-1. That way I get most of the day on the west coast, get to sleep in my own bed and have a decent night sleep both nights. Not a hard choice at all for me. Now if B6 and others would just offer more (or any) routings from PDX,SEA, SFO or LAX back to BOS at those hours I’d be a happy camper.

  21. The late arrivals seem to be a United-specific thing (just like Delta eschews the pre-5am domestic departures, but US Air does not). Have taken the SFO-IAD equivalent a couple times (albeit with a slightly earlier arrival). As long as I don’t have any meetings scheduled for AM Eastern time, I just run my next day on Pacific time along with the rest of my team.

  22. The other thing I don’t mind about these flights that leave later in the afternoon or early evening is its great flight to eat and drink – as long as you don’t have to drive when you get to the east coast.

  23. Not sure if this is the case, but I often fly internationally on flights departing 1-3am, especially from the hub at SFO. Arriving at 2:30am does seem like little time to make intl connections though.

  24. I too noticed some odd options for the day after Thanksgiving that I have never seen available before. AUS-DCA with a 3 a.m. arrival? No thanks!!!

  25. @Mike from DC

    BWI is at least as civilized as IAD. It was #1 in the world for its size in 2010: . Meanwhile IAD has some nice architecture, long treks on unpleasant transport (train to nowhere and moon buggies!) and a dank pit of a concourse for it’s largest airline tenant.

    Back to the topic, all of the flight schedules from the west coast to IAD/BWI/DCA are atrocious.

  26. A lot of these odd hour flights are holiday add ins that make money for the company. If they did not make money they would not fly it.

  27. So what is Ben’s opinion when he lands in UAE around 2AM? I guess according to your analysis the ME3 carriers have built a failed strategy.

  28. Funny you should post about this. I’m scheduled on a similar United flight this Monday which leaves LAX at 6:20 pm and gets into IAD at 2:15 the next day. For me it’s perfect – I get pretty much a full day in Los Angeles and will get a reasonable amount of sleep once I get to DC (especially since that’s only 11:15 pacific time).

    Also there are only like 30 seats sold on the whole flight right now, which is operated by a 737. Count me in.

  29. @Rand Re: UA “no worries about arrival it will be late or cxld”

    Not necessarily. You could also end up spending 24 hours in Goose Bay.

  30. The pictured Dulles mobile lounges (for some reason called “isolation pods” in yesteryear by my wife) are a thing of the past! They have the speedy AeroTrain now.

  31. As a flight attendant, I can assure you that no matter the time or destination…it’ll probably still be oversold! 😛

  32. Looks like a perfect time for the investment banking community who require at least a 50% full days work and are used to <4 hours sleep a night.

  33. United has a few of these, and has for a while. There’s also an SFO-EWR arriving at 1:45am, for example. I don’t think they do any more, but they used to have a bunch even on much shorter routes, like some ORD-LGA flights that arrived quite late in the evening.

    I’m sure there are some people for whom the flight is convenient, though I don’t know if there is enough to fill a plane profitably. But I would think the bigger value for United is that if there are late inbound connecting flights, it gives them another opportunity to reaccommodate passengers the same day. Indeed, back when fuel was cheaper, many airlines would choose to have a last flight of the day in major markets that was rarely full (and perhaps intentionally designed never to be full with planned passengers) just to capture any straggling missed connectors.

  34. Early morning West coast flights are the worst. Everyone arrives at the airport as late as possible so there’s a mad rush and since you couldn’t get a full nights sleep, you’re tired all day while traveling to boot. I’d take this flight instead in a heartbeat.

  35. @Fliz

    The mobile lounges are still in use to access many parts of IAD. They’re mandatory for international arrivals, for example. And the AeroTrain may be speedy, but the stops were built to service a terminal that won’t exist for decades. So it’s a very, very long walk from stop to gate and usually ends up being slower than taking the mobile lounge, which drop you off at a more central location on the concourse.

  36. The schedule is weird, but definitely useful to some. But let’s cut out the douchey editorializing about areas within a 40 minute drive of Dulles… many of which happen to be the richest/most expensive/best educated in the country. I’d say those areas are doing something right, even if it doesn’t appeal to you.

  37. Those are my favorite flight times when going west-to-east.
    To the point I’ve often scratched my head wondering why the crazy rush in the morning when evening timing is so much better.

    Excluding red-eyes (which I avoid at all cost as the following day is a waste for me) you’re going to be awake in the 2-4am time frame on one side of the flight or the other.
    I hate having the alarm go off 3-4am so I can freshen-up then hit the road to the airport. The last 2 times I’ve arrived at the airport 4-6am I thought it would be a ghost town but found it to be a zoo. The last time was a 45 minute wait thru TSA Pre-check then a mad dash to the gate. Then a few hours of attempted restless sleep and arriving at destination feeling like crap. So much for having the late afternoon/evening “free”

    Much better to arrive at the western airport early evening following an almost full day. The crowds are less. A couple of glasses of wine in the lounge or on-board helps with the attempt at in-flight sleep. I still have that danged 2am-ish wake-up, but after a groggy drive home or to a hotel, it’s a few hours in a real bed. I awake maybe an hour or 2 later than usual, but other than that, it’s a normal start to my day.

  38. On top of all the other reasons given, you seem to be forgetting it’s perfectly normal for many people to still be awake past midnight. While most will be long in bed by 3am, staying up an extra couple of hours is hardly torture for most people!

    And while I find unprovoked insults funny as well (though not being familiar with “40 minutes around the airport” it makes no sense to me!), a blog read by the general public who often don’t find such insults funny (particularly when it’s not part of a punchline) seems to be a bizarre place to put it!

  39. @callum is spot on, I’m West coast based and often awake until 1am anyway so getting into an east coast hotel at 4am works well for me. Am I up and active at 8am the next morning? No way! But I’m not a morning person anyway so no difference.

    @Alvin is also spot on that a good final connection after a long haul can get me to switch entire routings, especially on the way home. After a week traveling, that last layover can just tip me over the edge. And I’ll risk booking shorter connections knowing that there are plenty of red eyes available later if it doesn’t work out.

  40. Enjoy reading the blog, but it should be more carefully edited: ie the comment “Dulles is a solid 40 minute drive from anywhere civilized.” I take offence at the way that was written. I think you meant to say “40 minutes drive from civilization.” Being “far from civilization” is a way of suggesting an area is not near a major urban area, (although there’s Reston), but “civilized” suggests something about the people. I don’t think you meant to slight the people living there (I could be wrong, though). If not, this should be edited.

  41. United does a lot of these around the holidays to position aircraft and crew for extremely early departures after a holiday, and hub-to-hub there’s some oddly timed flights used as (mostly) widebody aircraft reposition that they decided they’d sell tickets on.

  42. that time of night there would be absolutely zero traffic. Even in the middle of the day my house in Arlington is only about 25 minutes’ drive from IAD.

    I’ve never really gotten all of the hate for the “mobile lounges”. It’s better than having to walk all the way from the midfield terminal to the main terminal. But now that the underground train is running I haven’t seen the mobile lounges used for anything other than international arrivals. But I don’t use the airport super frequently. Baggage claim is usually pretty terrible. At that time of night I can’t imagine that UA will have many baggage handlers on duty. So if you have a checked bag you might wait a while.

  43. Check inbound flight schedule for Hawaii flights… You might realize this flight is scheduled to connect passengers coming from there.

  44. It allows you to leave early enough that you’re not sitting around for hours waiting for your flight but also late enough that you can justify avoiding going in to the office the next day and “working from home”. 😉

  45. In general, flights between 4-8 hours are not my favorite,
    Either very long-haul, where you can get your neck down, and get some kip.
    Otherwise 2-3 hours with a decent meal.
    Of course based on the ridiculous hotel prices in NYC area, I would at my own expense try knock down the number of nights to a minimum….

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