United Airlines has underlined its commitment to the Asia-Pacific ultra long-haul market with the recent launch of its Los Angeles-Singapore direct route.
The carrier operated the 8,770 mile route for the first time on 29 October with a Boeing 787-9 aircraft, becoming the first carrier to operate the route since Singapore Airlines dropped its Airbus A340-500 service in late 2013.
The Singapore-Los Angeles leg takes 15h 15min, and on return, 17h 55min. It is United's longest route.
Marcel Fuchs, vice president Atlantic & Pacific sales at United, says the inaugural flight was full, and bookings for the flight look promising.
"We're in a good place, and pretty happy about advanced bookings," he says.
Fuchs and his colleague Patrick Quayle, vice president international network, met with FlightGlobal in Singapore recently. Prior to the interview, they had hosted an event for the American Chamber of Commerce to promote the new service.
Fuchs says the strong performance of the carrier's San Francisco-Singapore service inspired the direct Los Angeles route.
The Los Angeles-Singapore market, however, is different. San Francisco-Singapore is driven mainly by industries such as IT, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and consultancy. LA is mainly centered on feeder traffic from United's network into its LA hub, from which it has services to over 40 airports.
"We've enjoyed really good loads on the San Francisco flight, and some of that traffic will now take the LA flight," says Fuchs. "We're actually creating more opportunities."
Four months after United launched its Singapore-San Francisco direct 787-9 service in June 2016, fellow Star Alliance member Singapore Airlines riposted with its own direct service using Airbus A350-900 aircraft.
Quayle declined to directly address the SIA move, but said that United's launch of the route stimulated the San Francisco-Singapore market to grow by 50%. It performed well enough to inspire the direct Los Angeles service.
'We think we can stimulate new traffic from LA, and grow the market even more there," says Quayle.
The executives touched on other Asia-Pacific markets. China remains challenging. Quayle says that this is due to Chinese carriers' increase of capacity to the US, particularly from secondary cities, as well as airlines operating on the periphery of China also adding capacity.
"You have Chinese carriers, plus you have all the places in Asia that have a one-stop with beyond service," says Quayle. "They've put so much capacity in the market place. China is a very tough environment right now."
FlightGlobal Schedules shows that United flies direct from the US to the "tier one" cities of Beijing and Shanghai. It also serves the "tier two" cities of Hangzhou, Xian, and Chengdu. Xian is only operated during the summer schedule.
Overall seat capacity on China-North America services has been rising sharply, from 31.7 billion ASKs in 2012, to 74.5 billion in 2017.
United also has high hopes for its new Houston-Sydney 787-9 service starting in January 2018.
One challenge for United in the region is Guam. The US territory was in the news recently after North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un threatened missile attacks against US bases there in the event of a war on the Korean peninsula.
United has an extensive network into its Guam hub from Japan. It also serves it from Hong Kong, Manila, and Honolulu, and operates a regional network to other Pacific islands.
On 6 October, United announced that it would cut its Sapporo-Guam service in January 2018, and reduce other frequencies. In September, rival Delta Air Lines said it would axe its 10-times-weekly Boeing 757 service to Guam in January 2018.
"The Guam market clearly has fewer Japanese arrivals," says Fuchs. "But this has been largely compensated by Korean arrivals."
He adds that some Japanese groups have been cancelled, for example trips by school groups. Still, he is confident that conditions will improve, and says that United commands most of the 800,000-strong Japanese market to the island.
"I recently met with our most important Japanese tour operator, and there is a lot of confidence that the Guam business will come back," say Fuchs.
The two executives were coy on possible new routes. Asked whether United is considering a direct service from the USA to Bangkok, which it dropped from its Asian network in March 2014, Quayle said that the carrier is always considering new route possibilities.
"I am certainly not going to tell you we'll add Bangkok, because it is one of a number of routes we've evaluated, some of which could materialise, or none of which could materialise. We evaluate every single route, and that's how we came to start the Los Angeles-Singapore route."
He adds that route planning is a balance of demand at both ends, and the aircraft available for the mission, so as to get "the best return on that asset."
Fuchs and Quayle also underlined United's commitment to its new, ultra long-haul routes even should fuel prices continue to rise. High fuel prices ultimately doomed SIA's A340-500 services to New York and Los Angeles, although new twin-engine types such as the 787 and A350 are recognised as being significantly more fuel efficient.
"Nobody has a crystal ball," says Fuchs. "We're in the business of operating these routes on a sustainable basis. We're not here in the short run, we don't do things for 12 to 18 months. We're here to stay."
Source: Cirium Dashboard