Travel demand between Asia and the U.S. is roaring, and United Airlines is looking to get on board.
The Chicago-based carrier announced an expansion of its Pacific schedule this winter, taking advantage as demand surges following broad reopenings across Asia.
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United will start with a brand new route between San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) in the Philippines, with daily service beginning Oct. 29, 2023.
With the new route, United becomes the only U.S. airline to fly between the contiguous United States and the Philippines, although it’s actually the airline’s second route to Manila. United already flies daily to Manila from its Micronesian base at Guam International Airport (GUM) on Boeing 737-800 aircraft.
The flight from SFO, on the other hand, will be operated with United’s largest aircraft, the Boeing 777-300ER. That aircraft is equipped with Polaris business class seats and a premium economy cabin, giving passengers options for the nearly 7,000-mile flight.
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While no U.S. airline currently flies to the Philippines, Philippine Airlines flies from Manila to Guam, Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL), New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and SFO.
United also announced two other new routes, including the restoration daily service from LAX to Tokyo Narita International Airport (NRT) starting on Oct. 28. United previously operated that route before shifting it to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND). The new Narita route will exist alongside the Haneda flight, making for two daily departures from Los Angeles to Tokyo. The airline will use a 787-10 to Narita.
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Finally, the airline will begin flying from Los Angeles to Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) with daily service starting Oct. 28, complementing an existing route from SFO. That flight will be operated with a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.
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As part of the announcement, the airline also said that it would add a second daily flight between SFO and Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) in Taipei, Taiwan, using a Boeing 777-200ER.
The new service comes several months after United announced a substantial expansion of its South Pacific and Oceania network. With the new routes, United says it will fly to 15 different trans-Pacific long-haul destinations this winter, more than other U.S. carriers.
The expansion and associated demand comes on the tails of a similar boom in the transatlantic market, which saw more demand than airlines could keep up in 2022 and this summer following the closed borders of 2020 and 2021.
In contrast to its competitors, United took a risky approach during the pandemic by keeping its entire widebody fleet rather than retiring any of those larger aircraft to reduce costs. While some planes were put in storage during the peak of the pandemic, it was still able to bring them back into service to maximize the sudden increase of demand following reopenings.
It’s an approach that the airline says paid off. The share of international flights in the airline’s network is 2% larger than it was in 2019, said Patrick Quayle, United’s head of international network planning, during a conference call on Monday ahead of the announcement.
The key, Quayle said, is trying to grow “responsibly,” capturing demand where it exists and where it’s growing while not overcommitting resources.
In the case of the Pacific, demand has been surging. But that has varied by region, leading to the airline trying to be strategic in how it’s adding capacity.
“Tokyo started off the year a little weak,” Quayle said. “But as Tokyo opened up to global travel, it’s really gone gangbusters.”
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Notably, the announcements centered around United’s West Coast hubs, and excluded Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), which has been in the spotlight following operational struggles ahead of the July 4 holiday week.
United operates a nonstop flight to Tokyo Narita from Newark, and previously flew to Hong Kong as well.
Quayle said that although the airline was working to shore up its Newark operation and was “not rethinking our international network out of Newark,” it had no plans to add service to Asia from the East Coast hub anytime soon. Restrictions on flying through Russian airspace create range issues for anything beyond the Northern Pacific, Quayle said, while flights to mainland China remain limited due to ongoing trade tensions.
Nevertheless, the Pacific announcement represents another phase in the reopening and resumption of travel, and with Manila, expansion is back in the skies.