“Those airlines aren’t airlines.”
These were the words Oscar Munoz, former CEO of United Airlines, used back in 2017 as he sharply rebuked the big Middle Eastern carriers as unfair competitors.
Munoz and his counterparts at American Airlines and Delta Air Lines spent much of the mid-to-late 2010s complaining about the so-called ME3 carriers: Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways. They alleged that these Middle Eastern behemoths took subsidies from their respective governments, which enabled the airlines to provide superior service at a competitive price on long-haul routes to the U.S.
“It isn’t fair to compete with someone who doesn’t have to make a profit and can be subsidized by their governments,” Scott Kirby, then-president of American, said in 2015.
Fast forward nearly eight years. Kirby, now CEO of United, is about to send a 276-seat Boeing 777-200ER from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Dubai International Airport (DXB) on a brand-new daily route that takes off at 9:40 p.m. March 25.
In what was once an unthinkable move from a U.S. airline, United will even sell onward connections from Dubai to cities like Karachi, Pakistan, and Nairobi, Kenya, as part of an new partnership with its onetime foe Emirates.
First unveiled in September 2022, the two carriers pronounced the tie-up a “historic commercial agreement” that sent shockwaves throughout the aviation industry. It didn’t just represent a remarkable thawing of ties between a U.S. airline and a Middle Eastern carrier. It also meant that United would reenter a market it dropped in 2016 due to oversupply from Emirates.
“The reason this flight is going to be a success now and the prior flight did not work really comes down to one word, and that’s partnership,” Patrick Quayle, United’s senior vice president of global network planning and alliances, said in an interview with TPG.
The partnership comes on the heels of American also strengthening its ties with now-codeshare partner and fellow Oneworld alliance member Qatar Airways. American started a daily flight from New York to Doha, Qatar, back in June 2022. It also sells one-stop connections to cities throughout the Middle East, Africa and beyond with Qatar.
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At the outset, the United and Emirates tie-up isn’t especially comprehensive.
It allows United to sell connections beyond the United Arab Emirates and Emirates to market flights beyond certain U.S. hubs. It includes an interline ticketing agreement at a handful of U.S. airports. (This type of cooperation means that the two airlines can rebook onto each other’s flights during irregular operations and send checked bags through on separate itineraries.)
Aside from more itinerary choices, premium passengers will enjoy reciprocal lounge access in Dubai when connecting to or from United’s new flight. Some frequent flyers can now enjoy limited mileage-earning opportunities between the two airlines.
While the partnership is a notable improvement in relations for the carriers, it isn’t a full-fledged codeshare. However, a codeshare is in the works, per a recent filing with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Even so, phase one brings a big opportunity for United, especially with the monumental new flight from Newark to Dubai.
“All indications from the data we’re seeing is that [the new route] is doing exactly as we have planned,” Quayle said. He added that it “has fantastic connectivity to a bunch of points that we can’t serve,” either because the cities are too far or because United faces geopolitical challenges.
For instance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means that U.S. carriers can no longer overfly the country, leading United to suspend some of its routes to India. The new Dubai flight means that United can once again offer service to these cities through connecting flights with Emirates and Flydubai.
It was this type of “pragmatic” thinking that eventually led United to bury the hatchet with Emirates.
“We approached it openly and candidly, and we spent a lot of time building a relationship with an airline that we didn’t have a relationship with because, understandably, there was a lot of hurtful things said by both sides,” Quayle told TPG.
While the new route is perhaps United’s most notable one this year, it comes as the Chicago-based carrier has been busy growing its portfolio of long-haul destinations.
Last year, the airline kicked off a major expansion spree that included six new cities: Amman, Jordan; Bergen, Norway; Brisbane, Australia; Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Ponta Delgada, Portugal; and Tenerife, Spain. All of these will continue to be a part of the United network except for Bergen, which didn’t meet United’s expectations.
Meanwhile, Dubai ushers in another blockbuster year for United’s network planning team. In addition to the new UAE service, United is adding flights to Stockholm and Malaga, Spain. The carrier is also launching four new routes to existing destinations this summer. Not to mention, it’s doubling down on two key European markets — London and Paris — with a second daily flight from Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., respectively.
Dubai is different from most new United routes because it’s perhaps the market with the biggest potential. “From a network perspective, the Dubai flight will function much more like a Munich or a Frankfurt or Zurich than it will a Palma or a Ponta Delgada in the Azores,” Quayle said.
Dubai is a “powerful” aviation hub, and all the onward traffic means there’s plenty of room for United to expand there. “I don’t want to announce anything today, but we have thought through how we can add more flying into Dubai from other destinations across the United States,” Quayle said.
While growth in Dubai may be in the cards, all eyes now turn to Saturday’s inaugural from Newark — one that may just be the first of many for the carrier.
Stay tuned to TPG for more coverage from on board United’s inaugural flight to Dubai!