- United Airlines announced new routes on Wednesday, adding service connecting the continental US to Africa, India, and Hawaii.
- The new routes represent a shift in strategy for United as the airline seeks to capture bright spots in an otherwise weak travel market, and to reposition its network for the post-pandemic world.
- In an interview with Business Insider, United's head of international network planning explained how the new routes reflect three distinct approaches.
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United Airlines announced a range of new long-haul routes on Wednesday, targeting pockets of demand as it rebuilds its international network.
The airline will launch thrice-weekly service from Washington, DC to Accra, Ghana and Lagos, Nigeria in late-spring 2021, as well as daily service from Newark, NJ to Johannesburg, South Africa. The airline currently operates seasonal service to Cape Town, South Africa, from Newark.
United will also launch a new flight from San Francisco to Bengaluru, India, next summer. The airline will expand its service to New Delhi, India, in December of this year, adding a nonstop flight from Chicago. (The airline already flies to New Delhi from Newark.)
Finally, United announced new service to Hawaii, adding flights from Newark to Maui and from Chicago to Kona.
The new routes represent three distinct strategic moves as United rebuilds capacity that it slashed amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, United's head of international route planning, Patrick Quayle, told Business Insider.
The three new Africa flights target travelers who are visiting friends and relatives ("VFR" travelers, in tourism parlance).
While Quayle said that there is some business travel demand for those cities, flying for work remains severely depressed due to the pandemic. So the airline is making a play for those lower-yield VFR travelers, along with "premium leisure" vacationers.
"It's a different traveler than what you find flying to London Heathrow or Tokyo," Quayle said. "There's a strong dynamic of people going home or people who live there coming to United States to visit relatives who are here."
As business travel does slowly resume, United sees strength in the tech sector, which explains the San Francisco-Bengaluru service. Twitter, IBM, Amazon, Cisco, Deloitte, Dell, Accenture, and other tech companies have offices in the southern Indian city, which is also known as Bangalore.
American Airlines had announced a flight to the city from Seattle, which was scheduled to begin in October — that route has since been delayed. Quayle said United built its Bengaluru route separately from American's plans.
"We made our business case independent of what the competition is doing," Quayle said. "I would say if you look at the market and if you look at where the traffic is, there is substantially more traffic in San Francisco than there is in Seattle."
The Hawaii flights represent United's bet that as leisure travel demand continues to recover, travelers who aren't visiting friends and relatives will feel more comfortable flying domestically, making Hawaii an obvious appeal ling vacation spot.
"People are wanting to get away and wanting to stay within the United States in case there are border closures, or health issues, or anything like that," Quayle said. "We're just making it easier to get to places like Maui and Kona."
As airlines continue to rebuild for post-COVID era, Quayle said that United is taking the opportunity to rebuild its overall approach.
"We're using this time to re-envision the network to build back, not necessarily the network that we had, but to build the network for the future of United Airlines."
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