Asia is quickly becoming the playground of United Airlines' Boeing 787s, nearly a year after it took delivery of its first aircraft.
The Chicago-based Star Alliance member has announced that it will use the Dreamliner to replace Boeing 777-200s on its flights between San Francisco and Osaka Kansai from 8 April 2014 - its sixth international route for the aircraft and fifth across the Pacific.
"The new schedule reflects our on-going work to put the right aircraft in the right markets to earn a sufficient return," United said on the schedule change in an employee newsletter on 15 August.
With the Osaka flight, the carrier is currently scheduled to fly 787s on seven routes from April 2014: Denver-Tokyo Narita, Houston Intercontinental-Denver, Houston-Lagos, Los Angeles-Shanghai Pudong, Los Angeles-Tokyo, San Francisco-Osaka Kansai and Seattle-Tokyo.
United 787 routes 8 April 2014, as of 21 August
Flightglobal and Great Circle Mapper
United says that domestic routes for the aircraft could change "in support of any new international routes".
The current schedule for 8 April 2014 does not include a positioning flight for the San Francisco-Osaka route.
The service plan is a bit different than what United outlined for its 787s prior to their entry into service in November 2012. It touted the type for its ability to launch new routes that are not economically feasible with larger aircraft and to operate existing routes during off-peak seasons, sharing a map of the seasonal demand peaks for international travel to the USA with investors at the time.
The airline did use the 787 to launch Denver-Tokyo in June and will introduce it on Seattle-Tokyo flights during the upcoming low season. However, the Osaka shift comes just as travel to Asia would typically pick up - a reason that it cited when it postponed the relaunch of its San Francisco-Taipei Taoyuan service until March 2014.
"In order to get operational scale with a certain aircraft you have to operate up to about 10 aircraft before you get some efficiencies," says Shakeel Adam, managing partner of aviation consultancy Aviado Partners. He adds that it is good to concentrate an aircraft type in a certain market or select number of bases until an airline achieves that scale.
United will have 10 787s in its fleet by April 2014, Flightglobal's Ascend Online database shows. This includes seven in its fleet plus deliveries scheduled for this October, January 2014 and March 2014.
Japan is clearly the focus of the carrier's 787 network, despite its having four gateways in the US west. United benefits from a crew base in Tokyo as well as the facilities and operations of its joint venture and alliance partner All Nippon Airways (ANA) - also the largest global operator of 787s.
United says that it has no plans to open any new crew or maintenance bases for the aircraft at this time. Its only crew and maintenance base for the type is in Houston.
"Ease of support and regional product consistency," says Robert Mann, an industry analyst and former airline executive with RW Mann & Company, on the concentration in Asia. He cites the ANA joint venture and competition with Japan Airlines (JAL), which also operates 787s between Japan and the USA.
Matching supply to demand likely also plays a big piece. United reported a 3.4% decrease in passenger unit revenue across the Pacific due to increasing competition and the weak Japanese yen during the second quarter. While executives did not outline any specific capacity adjustments during a briefing in July, the carrier released guidance of a 0.7% to 1.7% capacity cut in the region during the third quarter versus a year earlier.
Using the smaller 787 on existing routes to Japan - as well as plans to downgauge its flights to Australia to 777s from Boeing 747-400s from March 2014 - align nicely with United's continual adherence to optimising capacity.
The airline's 787s have 219 seats compared to the 253 to 348 on its 777s and the 374 on its 747s.
"It's more efficient to put a 787 on a market that is the right size but doesn't have the volume of demand or the yield [for a larger aircraft] at the time," says Adam.