Why United Airlines Is Capping Sydney Flights At 50 Passengers

Filed Under: United

United Airlines will soon be resuming flights from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia… though the flights will be at most 20% full.

United Airlines resuming Sydney flights

Airlines around the globe have cut most long haul routes due to both increased travel restrictions and a decrease in demand. We’re slowly starting to see airlines add back long haul flights. Among US airlines, United Airlines in particular is adding back more long haul flights in the coming months.

United Airlines will be resuming 3x weekly flights between Los Angeles and Sydney as of September 8, 2020. The route will operate with the following schedule:

UA839 Los Angeles to Sydney departing 10:50PM arriving 6:55AM (+2 days)
UA842 Sydney to Los Angeles departing 9:30AM arriving 6:05AM

United Airlines has operated San Francisco to Sydney flights throughout most of the pandemic, though the airline is now resuming flights out of Los Angeles as well. Delta is adding back flights between Los Angeles and Sydney in the coming weeks, while American isn’t planning on resuming the route until summer 2021.

United is resuming Sydney flights as of September

Sydney flights will be capped at 50 passengers

United Airlines will use a Boeing 787-9 for the Sydney service, featuring 252 seats. This includes:

  • 48 Polaris business class seats
  • 88 Economy Plus (extra legroom) seats
  • 116 regular economy seats

When United resumes service to Australia, the airline will be capping westbound flights at just 50 passengers per flight (that limit doesn’t include the crew working the flight). That’s right, the airline will only sell the flight to just under 20% of capacity.

This should make the Los Angeles to Sydney route a virtually guaranteed upgrade for passengers, since you could seat 48 people in business class, and have at most two people in economy. However, at that point economy may just be the place to sit for proper physical distancing. šŸ˜‰

Los Angeles to Sydney will be a very easy upgrade

Why does this 50 person cap exist?

Australia has for the most part done an amazing job stopping the spread of coronavirus. As part of this, the country has more or less closed borders to the outside world, so no tourists or business travelers are allowed in. Rather, primarily only Australians are allowed to return home.

Those returning to Australia need to go into a 14-day quarantine — we’re not talking a self-quarantine at home, but rather quarantine in a designated facility. Recently significant restrictions have been added for international flights arriving in Sydney, since there’s only so many people who can be quarantined at once:

  • There’s a cap of 50 passengers per flight
  • At most 450 passengers per day can arrive off international flights

So that’s why the cap exists. This cap will no doubt cause a lot of airlines to cut planned flights to Australia.

How does United plan on making money on these flights, in spite of restrictions? It comes down to cargo. Airlines around the world have largely been operating cargo-only flights, so United Airlines is clearly banking on making money on these flights from cargo, while any passengers essentially just chipping in to help cover (part of) the fuel bill.

The government is adding a cap of 50 passengers per international flight

Bottom line

Australia is taking international arrivals very seriously to stop the spread of coronavirus, with all arriving passengers having to go into a 14-day quarantine in a facility. As a result, each flight is being capped at 50 passengers.

This isn’t stopping some airlines from adding international flights to Australia, though — clearly the focus with these flights is on cargo, because a few dozen passengers are unlikely to cover the operating costs.

For those who do find themselves needing to fly to Australia, being on a long haul flight with at most 49 other travelers is pretty cool, if you ask me…

  1. The 50 pax per flight capacity restriction at SYD is only supposed to remain in place whilst MEL is closed to international arrivals, in order to prevent MEL-bound services being rerouted to SYD.

    This should lift before United resumes service to SYD, but I guess at least theyā€™re planning for worst case scenario.

  2. Tighter caps on the number of arrivals are coming on Friday, possibly with people entering having to pay for their own 14 days mandatory quarantine.

    Melbourne has suspended arrivals and Perth is asking for tighter caps.

  3. The cap at Sydney (and now at Perth) airport is as a result of Queensland (Brisbane) charging for hotel quarantines as well as Victoria (Melbourne) also charging but suspending international flights due to their current lockdown.

    Because of this, authorities are concerns of an influx into Sydney and Perth where states are paying for the quarantine and entry is still permitted.

    The Australian high commission in the UK has said this cap is planned currently till July 17th. This obviously may be extended.

  4. Lucky, Sydney Airport isn’t adding a cap to flights as you stated in the caption of the Qantas A330 photo.

    It is being mandated by the NSW government.

  5. Do you think United is expanding internationally to quickly in this pandemic?

    I just saw they added a slew of European service.

  6. Iā€™m pretty sure United never stopped flights to Australia. SFO-SYD has operated throughout the pandemic. I know someone who flew to Sydney in March and returned in early June on that route.

  7. Historically LAX-SYD has always been a HEAVY cargo route for UA…On more then one occasion I can remember announcements requesting volunteers because of weight/cargo, and that was on the 747-400…Also twice, I was in SYD and the ground staff was actively moving passengers from the LAX flight to the SFO departure due to the cargo going to LAX, again on the 747-400…

  8. Ben, I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned Nolinor’s new leisure airline, OWG, or Off We Go. Pretty great livery, but not sure what the economics behind it are considering the state of the world.

  9. If you look current flights – United is operating at least once a day cargo flights LAX-SYD… it’s actually quite amazing the amount of cargo flights United has going on…

  10. Disagree about easy upgrades. Anyone paying $$$ for biz will want a full row for distancing, so that limits the cabin from the get go. Would be insane to pack out the biz cabin and leave 2 people in the rest of the plane.
    Good chance everyone gets a full row, though 3x3x3 is not great for poor mans biz, as the row is a little short to fully stretch out.

  11. Pretty sure you meant that the SYD-LAX leg departs at 9:30AM (which gets in the same day a few hours earlier) – not 9:30PM

  12. @ tom — United doesn’t block seats for distancing, unlike other airlines. So they absolutely would sell all 48 seats. That’s United’s policy.

  13. I was on this flight on July 4th. I was originally booked YVR-HKG-SYD on Cathay but they cut their HKG-SYD flights the day I was to fly due to this cap. It was very eerie onboard, I believe we had 32 pax in total across all cabins. I was in the economy plus section with only 2 other passengers in the cabin. Was definitely a surreal experience but happy to be back in Sydney.

  14. There is no point paying for business class when you can stretch across a row of economy seats.

  15. Business or economy, Iā€™d take anything, just hope us Americans are welcomed back sometime soon!

  16. No, flying_foxy the reason is as lucky said, due to quarantine capacity, not because of competitive reasons with MEL.

    Passengers intended for MEL will most likely go via Sydney now as that is now the main entry port for Australia.

  17. @lucky, love your blog but your hypocrisy needs to be fixed. So Australia is doing great with COVID by limiting all international travellers but when China does the same, comments such as they are being unfair to US airlines and making it not possible for them to be profitable…

  18. Don’t expect upgrades to Business if this situation persists. Business will be closed altogether and the 50 pax will be socially distanced through Y. Right now it’s a ‘must travel’ situation only, and must suck up sitting in Y. This makes sense for the airline.

  19. @ tom ā€” United doesnā€™t block seats for distancing, unlike other airlines. So they absolutely would sell all 48 seats. Thatā€™s Unitedā€™s policy.

    Wrong again. They will space pax among Polaris and Economy Plus, then tie down light weight freight in the economy seats.

  20. I guess I just donā€™t understand whoā€™s coming and going on those flights. As far as I understand it, Australians are banned from leaving the country, and foreigners are not permitted to visit unless thereā€™s some sort of a grave emergency. What am I missing here?

  21. @Marvella~ If your idea of ‘soon’ is sometime in 2021, you may be in luck. Your country is going to need a to a lot, lot, more to bring your epidemic under control and get to near elimination as we have done.
    As luck would have it you have the opportunity in a few short months to take charge and vote Trump and his toadies out the door. If that doesn’t happen , even god won’t help you! Sorry.

  22. To answer Brian, the passengers on these flights are Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members. Either passengers who have been overseas during the pandemic outbreak and are making their way home, or possibly citizens visiting critically ill family members. The people on the outgoing flight can be non-residents who are now returning home.
    Also, all Australian states that have incoming international flights are now charging incoming passengers for the enforced 14 day hotel quarantine- around $AU3000 per adult.

  23. We have booked economy flights from SFO to SYD for family of 5 for late Aug. Weā€™ve heard that they might be cancelling tickets unless you upgrade to Biz class. Has anyone experienced this?

  24. Just booked a seat (confirmed) on Delta to Sydney economy plus and now waiting to see if I get to go.Aug 7th dep.
    Anyone else experienced getting bumped off because of cabin class preference ?

  25. I know of people whoā€™ve been bumped off Dubai-Brisbane (2nd last week in August) due to these limitations. The ticket was economy class but the bumping was supposedly ā€˜randomā€™. Anyone heard of any biz or first class pax being bumped?

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