Details Of United’s New Washington To Accra Flight

Filed Under: United

Several weeks ago United Airlines revealed some new long haul flights, including to Africa, India, and Hawaii. So far United has put its new flights to Bangalore, Johannesburg, Maui, and Kona, on sale, and now the airline is opening reservations for yet another one of its new flights.

United Airlines’ Washington to Accra flight

As of May 14, 2021, United Airlines will launch 3x weekly flights between Washington Dulles and Accra. The route will operate with the following schedule:

UA996 Washington to Accra departing 6:05PM arriving 8:40AM (+1 day)
UA997 Accra to Washington departing 11:45PM arriving 6:35AM (+1 day)

The flight will operate eastbound on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and westbound on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

At just 5,282 miles in each direction, this is one of the shorter nonstop flights between the US and Africa. The flight is blocked at 10hr35min eastbound and 10hr50min westbound.

For some context on this route:

  • This represents a resumption, as United flew between Washington and Accra for years, but cut the route in 2012
  • Delta Air Lines is currently the only US airline flying to Ghana, as the airline operates a New York to Accra service
  • South African Airways used to operate a Washington to Accra flight, but the airline is basically out of business

United’s Boeing 787-8

United will use a Boeing 787-8 for the Washington to Accra route. United is in the process of reconfiguring these planes with new Polaris seats and Premium Plus seats. Here’s how the two configurations differ:

  • United’s “old” 787-8s feature 219 seats, including 36 Polaris (business class) seats, 70 Economy Plus seats, and 113 economy seats
  • United’s “new” 787-8s feature 243 seats, including 28 Polaris (business class) seats, 21 Premium Plus (premium economy) seats, 36 Economy Plus seats, and 159 economy seats

United is installing new Polaris seats on 787-8s

Why the terrible aircraft utilization?

As you can see, in the case of the Washington to Accra route, this is pretty bad aircraft utilization:

  • The plane sits on the ground in Accra for around 15 hours
  • The plane is away from “base” from 36hr30min, and is “only” flying for 21hr25min

Let me be clear — I obviously don’t work in network planning, and I also think United has some of the brightest people working in international network planning. I’m sure United has good reasons for the schedule it chose, though I’d be fascinated to know all of the thought that went into this. The advantages of this schedule are obvious:

  • By departing late at night and arriving early in the morning, the intent is to maximize connectivity on both ends
  • This is also great for passengers (particularly business travelers) in terms of “wasting” as little time as possible by not flying during the day
  • Will United crews be turning directly around, simply resting for the 15 hour daytime layover, which would save on hotel costs?

But let’s imagine for a moment that the schedule were shifted by 12 hours on the return, so that the utilization was instead as follows:

UA996 Washington to Accra departing 6:05PM arriving 8:40AM (+1 day)
UA997 Accra to Washington departing 11:45AM arriving 6:35PM

What exactly goes into the thought process not to schedule the flight like that?

  • Is the poor aircraft utilization at least partly because United has excess planes right now, so efficient utilization isn’t a priority? As more flights are brought back, could we see the schedule adjusted?
  • Is United scared it would limit connections on either end for the westbound flight, because not all flights get to Accra well before 11:45AM, and not that many flights depart Washington well after 6:35PM?
  • Is United scared it would lose travelers who don’t want to travel daytime on the westbound?

It seems like United has greatly decreased its late night bank of flights at Dulles Airport, so I’m guessing all of this comes down to lack of connections at Dulles if the flight were to arrive around that time.

So that makes me wonder why the flight isn’t scheduled more like this, shifting the outbound forward by a few hours, and shifting the return forward by around 15 hours:

UA996 Washington to Accra departing 4:05PM arriving 6:40AM (+1 day)
UA997 Accra to Washington departing 8:45AM arriving 3:35PM

Obviously that would make connections in Accra challenging, but then I guess it depends to what extent this flight will rely on connections within Africa.

Anyway, we could go in circles all day long here, but it’s interesting stuff, no?

There will be a lot of downtime for United’s 787 in Accra

United award seats to Accra

If you’re interested in booking an award seat on United’s new Washington to Accra flight:

  • Economy award seats are readily available for 45,000 MileagePlus miles one-way (some days it prices at 46,000 miles, which sure is odd dynamic pricing)
  • Business award seats are available some days for 70,000 MileagePlus miles one-way

Bottom line

It’s cool to see United Airlines’ growth in Africa, as the airline plans to fly to Accra, Johannesburg, and Lagos. Two of those three flights are now on sale, with the Accra flight being the latest addition.

Since this represents a route resumption for United, I wonder how it will perform this time around. Only time will tell if this sticks around in the long run, especially given South African Airways’ demise, or if this is just the best use of a plane for the time being…

What do you make of United’s new Washington to Accra flight?

  1. I think you forgot about crew. 15 hours gives just enough time for the crew rest, this means that they should be able to use the same crew for both outbound and invound flight. As you said, there is no shortage of aircraft at the moment.

  2. This schedule allows the same crew to fly the plane home instead of having them spend more than a day in Ghana

  3. Perhaps the time on the ground in Accra is for crew rest as they will use the same crew for each flight rather than layover in Ghana for a couple of days.

  4. This flight won’t last and it likely, won’t launch at all, should aviation begin to rebound in 2021 (unlikely, but no one really knows). United has just 12 787-8 and having one sitting on the ground for 15 hours in a country where it can’t perform maintenance (like AA does in EZE, for instance) or deep cleaning, is problematic for a long, thin, VFR route with a limited amount of business traffic.

  5. This is common in places like Africa or South America on routes to/from US & Europe. Planes fly overnight each way and sit around all day.

    The lineup of parked jets on the tarmac at JNB, for example, during the day is (was) a catalog of Euro carriers.

    Not great aircraft usage yes but doesn’t make sense to fly all day and deliver connecting passengers into the hubs late at night.

  6. The answer to your question of aircraft utilization is very very simple. As of now, United does not have a bank of flights after 6:35PM at Dulles. If the flight arrived Dulles at 6:35PM, there would be zero connectivity. There literally are no flights after that. So there would be no connections for passengers, and the flight would be 100% reliant on Washington alone to fill the flight, which it would not be able to do. In normal, pre-covid days, United had a 10PM bank of flights from Dulles. If that bank returns, then perhaps your suggestion would be viable, but as of now, it’s not.

  7. Lucky: The poor aircraft utilization rate caused by the 15 hours on the ground in Accra is no different than that experienced by all three major US carriers in the flights from US cities to Santiago, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Sao Paulo, and Rio. All the flights in both directions are at night, so a whole bunch of US aircraft sit on the ground in the Southern Cone for 15 hours every day.

  8. @Jason
    Wrong I’m afraid. If the flight left Accra again at 10:40 AM (which is perfectly feasible – 2 hour turnaround on a 788 is plenty of time) there would be just as many connection options… here’s why:
    You are correct in saying that there are very few international flights after 6:30 PM, but who exactly would fly from Accra to DC to connect onwards to Europe? So that part of the world is useless anyway. The only feasible connections for this route are in North America, as far as I can tell. For that purpose, a 5:30 PM arrival back to Dulles would make plenty of connections (SFO, LAX, ORD, EWR, IAH, etc.) just to name a few. There are plenty of domestic UA flights that leave after 6:30 PM or so.

  9. Here’s my guess and most likely answer. United is hoping travel will rebound enough to introduce Accra from another hub, which could mean this 15 hours of down time could mean this 787 could hypothetically operate IAD-ACC-___, while another one could land hours later and operate ___-ACC-IAD. Thus reducing aircraft downtown. Other than that I’d say this is just to maximize connections enough to make the flight economically viable.

  10. @Sam
    I never ever every posited that people would use this flight to connect via Dulles to Europe.
    United has as of now eliminated its 10PM domestic departure bank at Dulles. As of right now – and you can check the schedules, United’s last departure bank from Dulles is the 5pm-6:30 pm or so bank.
    United cancelled the 10PM bank in March and have been rolling the cancellation forward every month. There literally are no flights to the cities you mention after 6/7PM these days at dulles.
    You are technically correct – they may not have already zeroed those flights/ canceled them for next May, so in theory the 10PM bank may show up if you look now – I’m not sure.
    But as of now there is no 10PM bank at Dulles, so any flight that arrived into Dulles at 6:35PM would literally have nothing to connect to. Who knows – demand could recover by May to the extent that United could be motivated to reinstate their domestic flights at 10PM, but as of now this scheduling indicates that the network planners at United do not expect that to be the case as of next May – they’ve deliberately scheduled this flight to arrive Dulles in order to connect to the morning bank of flights.

  11. UNITED rising with the resumption of this Capital to Capital service, the signature of its crown jewel Washington-Dulles hub.

  12. @Jason
    There’s no way this route would open without the 10 PM domestic bank being reopened. If travel is in such a place by May to make this route worthwhile (which I very much doubt will happen by the way) then there will by extension be enough demand to reopen the 10 PM domestic bank.
    Does that make sense?

  13. @Sam – that’s the point. That’s why United’s network planners have the flight arriving Dulles at 6:35AM. And not at 6:35PM. Because there’s no 10:00PM bank. Arriving at 6:35AM as currently scheduled indicates that the planners want the flight to have connectivity, and arriving for the morning bank allows that connectivity. It also indicates that the planners are pretty sure that in May there wont be a 10:00PM bank. If they thought there’d be a 10:00PM bank, they maybe could have the flight arrive in time for it. This route IS opening without with 10PM bank from Dulles – it’s arriving at 6:35AM and connecting to the Dulles morning bank. As the schedule that Lucky published above shows.

  14. 6:35am arrival connects to the 10am bank.
    The 10pm bank is eliminated for now. Maybe it’ll return next year, or 2022. Hopefully.

    A 5:30pm arrival at Dulles now would connect to… Uber to your hotel.

  15. I’m not US-based, and what also intrigued my is that the “new” 787-8 has four classes – including Premium Plus (premium economy) and Economy Plus seats. What is the difference between these?

  16. As an international airline captain who will likely fly this very route on this very aircraft. Is will be impossible for the flight crew to fly the return flight with only 15-16 hours turn around time. There’s a little FAA regulation we refer to as Part 117. It governs rest requirements for flight crews

  17. I have to assume there will be cargo being shipped and if perishable, time to market logistics are probably setup around evening departures like most of Africa

  18. Could care less what United adds to it’s schedule after screwing many of us long time fliers a month before the Thanksgiving holiday by cancelling thousands of flights booked many months in advance. Try replacing RN seats for departures with so little time and so many searching. Then add salt in the wound by not notifying people for days. I just happened to check my record to see seating changes. So yeah, over and done with United for now making 30 hour duration from Europe to US.

  19. Widebodys in general aren’t being utilized currently but widebody crews are being paid contractual minimums. Further, it costs money to park a plane, so why not package several sunk costs into an international route (I’m assuming here) that at least has some hope of filling seats. Even if they break even on the route it’s a win in the current environment and beats flying a 78 on a route normally served by a narrowbody. This is an attempt to stop the bleeding. Optimization went out the window with paying untold billions to park planes around the country.

  20. With EWR-JNB, EWR-CPT, and IAD-ACC, United seems well positioned to fill the inevitable void that will lead from South African’s demise.

  21. Great analysis Lucky!

    Here is my take, profitable long haul flights from North America to Africa should go through Addis Ababa! Ethiopian Airlines has the best network in Africa and it’s Addis Ababa hub is #1 for those connection flights! Ghana is struggling to create a national airline while Ethiopian Airlines has a fleet of 127 to handle those connections. They upgraded the Addis Ababa airport to handle 22 million passengers per year. It’s a no brainier but I don’t understand who make those decisions. If you see the counter of Ethiopian Airlines at Dulles Airport, it’s always packed, and there are three reasons, connection, connection and connection!

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