United Airlines Modifying 787-9s For New Longest Route

Filed Under: United

Yesterday United Airlines announced seven new routes, five of which are international. While most airlines are adding service to Cancun and Fort Myers during these tough and unusual times, United is adding service to destinations like Accra, Bangalore, Johannesburg, and Lagos.

United’s new longest route

Among the “big three” US airlines, United is by far the carrier operating the most ultra long haul flights. Up until this point, United’s five longest routes have been:

  1. Houston to Sydney, which covers a distance of 8,596 miles
  2. San Francisco to Singapore, which covers a distance of 8,446 miles
  3. Newark to Hong Kong, which covers a distance of 8,065 miles
  4. Los Angeles to Melbourne, which covers a distance of 7,921 miles
  5. San Francisco to Melbourne, which covers a distance of 7,855 miles

Two of the routes announced yesterday will earn spots on United’s list of top five longest routes:

  • San Francisco to Bangalore will be United’s longest route, at a distance of 8,701 miles
  • Newark to Johannesburg will be United’s fourth longest route, at a distance of 7,989 miles

San Francisco to Bangalore will be United’s longest flight

United modifying 787-9s to improve range

Here’s something that’s interesting, and that many people may not have known. Cranky Flier notes that up until this point, United wasn’t able to operate the above two long haul routes without serious payload restrictions.

The San Francisco to Bangalore route was pushing the limits in terms of distance, while the issue with Johannesburg is that the airport is at a high altitude, greatly limiting takeoff performance on westbound flights.

United is making some modifications to its 787-9s, which will increase engine thrust and improve the fuel management system. Together these changes will make the flights possible. These are entirely software changes, so it seems to be a relative easy fix.

While United will eventually install this software update throughout its 787-9 fleet, initially only a subfleet will have the changes. There’s a positive implication on that front — the subfleet of 787-9s will feature new Polaris seats, so you’ll be guaranteed new Polaris seats on these ultra long haul flights.

It’s pretty cool to see United continuing to push the limits of ultra long haul flying.

These long routes will be guaranteed to have new Polaris seats

Will American still launch Seattle to Bangalore flights?

American Airlines hasn’t operated scheduled flights to India in about a decade, making it the only one of the “big three” US carriers not to fly to India.

Earlier in the year American announced it would launch Seattle to Bangalore flights. That caught a lot of people off guard, both because this marked the beginning of American’s Seattle expansion, and also because Bangalore was the first city in India that American would serve.

At the time the route kind of made sense:

  • American would be the only US airline to fly to Bangalore
  • I would assume that American bet that United couldn’t add San Francisco to Bangalore flights due to range and payload restrictions

But now that United is adding Bangalore flights as well, does the route still make sense? As Cranky Flier notes, looking at traffic to Bangalore from US origins:

  • San Francisco has 17.7% of the traffic (the most of any US city), accounting for over 200 travelers per day
  • Seattle has 4.3% of the traffic, accounting for roughly 50 passengers per day

Presumably American’s Seattle to Bangalore route is reliant on a lot of connecting traffic, especially from other west coast origins. With United now adding service to Bangalore as well, American will face a lot of competition.

That’s not even accounting for United’s existing presence in India, United’s partnerships with Air India and Vistara, and United’s general strength with tech corporate contracts.

Personally I’d be very surprised if this doesn’t cause American to reconsider Bangalore flights. And if that happens, then you have to wonder about American’s Seattle strategy altogether.

Will American still launch Seattle to Bangalore flights?

Bottom line

It’s incredibly impressive how global of an airline United has become in the past few years, and in particular that the airline is adding ultra long haul flights even at this time.

What I didn’t initially realize is that modifications would be made to 787-9s in order to make these two new routes work, as they weren’t previously possible. Since a 787-9 subfleet will be used for these flights, it also means they’re guaranteed to feature new Polaris seats, which is great.

Now the big question is whether American will still move forward with its Seattle to Bangalore flight. Personally I’m highly skeptical.

What do you make of United’s new longest route? Do you think American will still launch Seattle to Bangalore flights?

Comments
  1. United’s long haul strategy is incredibly unique and interesting. The 787 has really been a game-changer, with United taking full advantage of it.

    I’d say that Newark and San Francisco have really been the two biggest beneficiaries recently, plus Tel Aviv.
    -United has added Tel Aviv service from 3 additional cities (Chicago, San Fran, DC) and increased capacity from EWR.
    -New Flight to Naples
    -second daily flight to Tokyo from newark
    -increased capacity to Athens, Rome, BCN and Dublin on the 787-10
    -2nd daily Frankfurt flight from Newark
    -Singapore flight from SFO
    -Chendu flight from SFO
    -Amsterdam from SFO
    -New Dehli from SFO

    need i say more….

    well done United

  2. Those traffic numbers are pre-COVID though, no? There is a possibility that the percentage of SF traffic reduces. We’ve already seen many of the tech companies allow employees to work remotely. They may choose to move to locations that aren’t hubs, which then can even out the routings. It’ll still be significant, I’m sure, but maybe less so.

  3. American probably secured some sort of corporate contract for Seattle to Bangalore.

    For U.S. to Bangalore origin traffic, LAX accounts for 4.9% and DFW accounts for 6.3%. Pairing these along with Seattle, that’s 15.5% of total traffic. Like you mentioned, the route will need connecting traffic which can come from other areas with substantial demand to Bangalore, such as Atlanta, Chicago, and of course San Francisco – possibly from people loyal to AA/AS.

  4. @Andrew B
    Your point makes sense but I don’t think it will move the needle on corporate traffic because the tech people who might choose to relocate out of SF will largely be the senior engineers who work relatively independently whereas the people traveling to Bangalore were largely managers who might have a harder time relocating out of the city.

  5. Does American really expect people to fly from the east such as Atlanta, Miami, or Dallas, backtrack to Seattle and then fly to Bangalore…

    Why not just fly Lufthansa or British airways and not have as long of a journey through Seattle?

    I can see San Jose, San Franciso, or LAX through Seattle, but not much else, maybe besides Denver or Phoneix

  6. American should reconsider and launch jfk blr…as jfk is american airlines hub and Bangalore has a pretty good load to jfk at around 70k per year(pre covid)

  7. They need to add prem plus on these since my company wont pay for biz but will pay for prem econ. Sfo to blr I still rather go through LH or SQ in prem Econ with a stop to Bangalore.

  8. A little off topic but speaking of new Polaris seating, has United done anything to accelerate the retrofits of their long haul aircraft during the flying hiatus that is the COVID-19 pandemic? Anyone have any progress to report?

  9. @ Ishrion — Between Dallas and Los Angeles we’re talking about an extra 100 people per day, so between those two cities and Seattle, that’s 150 passengers per day. A few more things to keep in mind:
    — From Atlanta and Chicago it’s significant backtracking to go via Seattle, vs. flying via Europe (and that’s not even accounting for an all around better product if you’re flying internationally the whole way)
    — From Dallas it’s more or less breakeven (distance-wise) flying via Seattle vs. London
    — No airline is ever going to capture 100% of traffic in a local market, given that airlines often charge a premium for nonstop flights, so many would rather connect and save money, fly a better airline, etc.

    Ultimately this route relies on connectivity from the entire west coast, with San Francisco basically being as big as other west coast markets combined. With United adding Bangalore as well, I just don’t see where the passengers for American’s flight would come from.

    Now, with American’s new partnership at JetBlue I could see a New York to Bangalore flight, which seems much more logical at this point (though I’m not sure if that’s pushing the limit on American’s 787-9 for the westbound flight).

  10. As I understand , American’s Bengaluru flight originates in LAX with the same flight number and without a change of aircraft LAX SEA BLR SEA LAX

  11. Would there be an alternative scenario where SFO and SEA flights co-exist for UA and AA? AA could be sitting on corp contracts thanks to AS’s base in Seattle, and CA (LAX, SJC, SAN, PDX, etc.) while UA will capture the mighty tech hub of SFO.

  12. @terence that is exactly what will happen, and since nobody here mentioned it there are a lot more South Indian cities that tech workers in Seattle or the Bay area come from, not just Bangalore. Both the flights will act as a catchment for all passengers from MAA or HYD or any small towns around the area and around BLR. For all these folks, either of these two flights are a better travel idea than changing in Delhi etc.

  13. Eh? Did Qantas also modify their 787-9s to enable the 9,009-mile run between Perth and London? And if it’s a software fix that can improve fuel management, can everyone do it on their planes as well?

  14. Is there any information on when the tickets foe the SFO-BLR route will go on sale? I looked on united.com and don’t see them yet.

  15. @Rico

    Hear, hear!

    More broadly, just because software isn’t tangible doesn’t mean it’s not intricate or challenging. It may be relatively easy to load/unload software onto a system, but its modification, creation, testing, etc., is in itself a task as difficult as any other engineering task. (The 737 Max as a great example.)

  16. The most fuel efficient SFO-BLR route would be the north-south polar route that passes through Communist Chinese airspace. With increased tensions between US-CCP and India-CCP, what if Communist China denies the flyover rights? Would the 787-9 have enough range to take a more westerly route over Central Asia?

    P.S. Communist China threatened to revoke flyover rights from Cathay Pacific flights (and rejected landing rights for flights to mainland China) during the height of the Hong Kong democratic / anti-government protests last year until Cathay can verify the political inclinations of the crew. So it is always a possibility.

  17. @Mike C,

    there are plenty of anomalies involving Melbourne – MEL is also closer to SIN and BKK than SYD is, and SYD is closer to HKG than MEL by just 15km.

    Despite Melbourne being 700km southwest of Sydney – well 707 according to when Qantas awarded points based on kilometres rather than miles – it is generally closer to anything west of Hong Kong.

    Looking at a mercator projection map will always distort real distances

  18. You keep pushing the AA not flying to BLR. They are and will. Plenty of tech people in SEA, and will connect traffic to/from AS. BLR can handle many many flights from the US to service Southern India, that has a very robust traveling population, with money. Don’t be surprised to see UA or AA go double daily at some point, since there are many tech cities in the South.

    Also transfering in DEL and BOM is a pain, and can involve a nightmare switch of terminals. When traveling to/from India (which I do alot) its best to arrive straight into your destination from outside of the country.

    All of the India action is not regulated to BOM and DEL. There is a reason why BA put its new club world A350 into BLR as one of the first routes. I also remember the clueless and painfully subtle racist comments about the new A350 being wasted on India.

  19. If you consider traffic to Seattle from south India (rather than just Bangalore) then it’s quite a lot. Consider Bangalore’s hinterland. Today it gets distributed with exits from almost 8-10 airports in south India that connect Seattle via Middle East or Europe. Most of this may get consolidated depending on ticket prices. So I think this American and Alaska Airlines alliance should go ahead with Seattle Bangalore flight.

  20. Yes jordan ,blr is the next big player in the iindian market,many airlines are upgrading their flight to blr….the flight to US was coming,but was a bit late….there is a huge market from to many US destinations like san fransisco ,new york ,chicago etc

  21. Uh, excuse me…other airlines are adding Cancun and Fort Myers during covid19 but…UA is announcing new int’l routes during covid19. Flying and announcing are not even in the same airspace.

  22. Wait, airlines can just tinker around with software and/or engine hardware to make planes more efficient? Why doesn’t every airline do this with all of their planes?

  23. This flight is all about the direct connection to blr. No one transfers in india if they can avoid it. Indian airports are a pain for connections, especially international to domestic. DEL is the only one designed for it and even it’s not as good at it as the big hub airports like LHR FRA SIN HKG DXB etc. For example if you’re going to MAA or HYD most people would rather transfer in LHR FRA or DXB rather than deal with delays and missed connections within India.

    Furthermore, BLR does not have that many flights into these cities and they’re certainly not timed for connection traffic. Even larger airports like DEL and BOM often require layovers of 4 to 5 hours to get the morning flight into even big cities like Chennai. In contrast, LHR FRA, DXB, etc act basically like scissor hubs, bringing traffic from around the world together and then shuffling them onto their destination flights within a few hours.

    If I’m flying to MAA I’m not transferring in BLR, even if I live in SF. I’d rather take a 1-stop through dxb or hkg. It’ll usually be faster with less layover time not to mention a better on board experience. And if I live in Chicago or Atlanta, I *might* connect through SFO or SEA to get to BLR since it’s a domestic transfer with plenty of flights in case of delays. But that depends on how many hours of additional flying I’m doing to backtrack such a huge distance. But I’m certainly not doing a 2-stop to get to MAA…

    (FWIW Air India manages this better by having direct flights to HYD and BLR: they stop in DEL but you continue on the same flight to your final destination. No need to connect, and no worries about missing your flight due to delays)

  24. Feeder airports in south India such as Hubli, Belgaum, Mysore, Vijayawada, Tirupati, Bellary, Salem, Madurai, Coimbatore, Kolhapur, Rajamundry and many others like Indore, Nagpur, Bhopal, etc etc; and other tier two and three cities that do not have an airport yet have people who travel. They have to Essentially go to a major airport to fly to USA. For those going to NW USA Bangalore Seattle direct flight becomes a good option. They have to get to a major airport even if they want to fly to Middle East or Europe or Eastwards. They can avoid that extra changeover. When terminal 2 opens in Bangalore next year more direct flights to new destinations are on cards. Over the next 5-8 years it may become the leading airport in the country.

  25. Lune, you are certainly wrong as blr is well connected to major airports in india….especially to MAA and HYD…and infact blr has a single terminal for both domestic and international….i don’t know what makes it difficult for transferring…

  26. @ Weymar M Osborne

    Aircraft and engines are sold with a thrust rating which dictates the maximum takeoff weight of the aircraft. To reduce the expense of purchasing the aircraft airlines at times decide to not purchase the full rating which would in effect would limit the range or restrict the load carried by aircraft operated by that airline. United has done this in the past such as with the 777-200ER. When they transitioned from the 747 to 777 in Australia they negotiated with Boeing to increase the max certified thrust for the aircraft thereby reducing any weight penalty on the flights. This could be the case in this situation to make these flights workable.

    Another possibility is that Boeing or the engine manufacturer created additional enhancements over time to improve efficiency that were not available at the time of original purchase of the aircraft and these are now going to be purchased and included in the aircraft. These enhancements could have been the result of for example Boeing competing for the Qantas sun rise project.

    Either way the airline must pay for the additional capabilities in the aircraft. In this situation the answers could be that this was a negotiated part of the 737 MAX grounding as part of the compensation without any cash having to change hands. This is just speculation though.

  27. So nothing about cutting some weight? (i.e. reducing the 3-3-3 format in economy to go with 2-4-2?) If they have that many routes, they could reserve a few aircrafts for ultra long-haul with a more favourable seating for economy folks. Of course, that’ll never happen!

  28. Didn’t AA announce they are shifting some long haul traffic to JFK with the code sharing with jetblue ?
    They also announce Israel flights through jfk so maybe they might add an Indian flight also

  29. Ben!
    You said something positive about United! Amazing! But perhaps it’s simply because DL isn’t part of this particular scenario.
    Anyway, Bully for You!

  30. United still operates the archaic 2-2-2 biz class config on their SFO-DEL non stop routes. Air India SFO-DEL business is 2-3-2. Hoping to see the new Polaris biz on UA104/5 soon.

  31. Also to be taken into account is the fact that the economics on the route is going to be even tougher for UA given the distance. It still remains to be seen if it will be like LAX-SIN which got canned when SQ launched the route. I just don’t see UA sustaining 1x daily SFO-DEL, ORD-DEL, SFO-BLR on top of 1x daily EWR-DEL and EWR-BOM. That is way too much…. But UA is never shy at launching new long haul routes.. they are used to throwing darts at the board and seeing what sticks. This is simply a reaction to AA’s SEA-BLR launch, which clearly shows that UA sees a lot of potential in AA’s SEA-BLR route…

  32. I wonder when will they fly the 1-2-1 polaris configuration in business on the SFO – Del route. I know they flew it on Thursday Sep 17 2020 from SFO to Del since my friend was on it. After that not a single day showed that configuration in either direction. It is all 2-2-2 config.

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