Report: United Airlines Will Fly Chicago To South Africa

World Airline News reports that United Airlines will start flying from Chicago O’Hare to Johannesburg, South Africa in March 2024.

United Airlines currently flies from Newark to Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, and from Washington Dulles to Cape Town. Newark – Johannesburg is the airline’s second longest route.

The longest distance that United Airlines currently flies is 8,446 miles on board San Francisco – Singapore. That’s a sixteen and a half hour flight (an hour less on the return from Singapore).

Chicago to Johannesburg would clock in at 8,708 miles. That would be the ninth longest flight in the world, but the longest by any U.S. airline.

  • The aircraft they would use, the Boeing 787-9, can make the journey. Qantas flies the aircraft 9,009 miles from Perth in Western Australia to London Heathrow.

  • However Qantas doesn’t pack in their planes as much as United does. There are 236 seats on a Qantas Boeing 787-9, but 21 more seats in United’s configuration. That limits range somewhat. I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a flight weight restricted.

The longest flights in the world are all operated by variants of the Airbus A350, such as New York JFK to Singapore non-stop on Singapore Airlines which is 9,542 miles.

United is the only U.S. carrier that’s been interested in consistently operating ultra-long haul. American Airlines flies New York JFK to Delhi, though India flights can be challenging from the U.S. without Russian overflight (United operates to India as well). United even operates Houston – Sydney seasonally in winter, and that is about 150 miles longer than their San Francisco – Singapore flight.

Still, I’m surprised by the report that United plans to offer this flight.

  • They already serve South Africa from Washington Dulles (Cape Town). An additional Dulles service to South Africa would seem to be in the offing first, since it’s closer.

  • Chicago doesn’t seem like a big market for South Africa. Currently United’s Star Alliance partner Ethiopian offers six day a week service to Addis Ababa (and onward connections).

  • United is likely to pick up the bulk of the Chicago connecting market to South Africa via its two East Coast gateways already, so it’s not clear how additive this flight would be?

A Long Way To Go In United Economy

Ultra long haul flights require big fares to justify the crew, fuel and aircraft time. I haven’t plotted out United’s existing South Africa service to see whether they have long ground times currently and might be able to ‘save an aircraft’ by adding another strategically-timed route. Nevertheless it’s still a lot of flying, pushing the limits of the aircraft in their configuration, and would be their longest flight if it happens.

(HT: Enilria though I see it’s also been flagged by JonNYC as well)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The US-SA bilateral is fully utilised on the US side so unless they are using this to replace another service, there are no additional frequencies to be had.

  2. Houston is 315 miles further than ORD(I know it’s difficult to fathom), and that little extra distance makes it very difficult with the current aircraft.

  3. The flight is consistently full now and weight restricted for years so I can see the reasoning for a 2nd flight. Direct being such a convenience and time saver can justify the higher ticket cost.

  4. I believe United is not using all of its fully allocated frequencies to S. Africa this northern hemisphere winter.
    Either they realize that their two east coast hub strategy doesn’t work and are going to try to convince the DOT to let them move some of the flights from IAD or EWR to JNB or CPT or they are going back to the DOT and try to get more flights.

    Either way, Delta will have plenty to say about anything United wants to do esp. given how much United and the kids at the child’s table are saying about Delta’s desire to move its PDX-HND flight which the DOT denied.

    Given that Delta is receiving 16 new A350-900s that are more capable and larger than UA’s 789s, share shifts are certain to accelerate as passengers move from United to Delta not just to S. Africa but also across the Pacific.
    And Delta execs are once again saying that an A350-1000 order could happen soon; while they have been saying that for years, DL is on the verge, with or without the -1000 of having the most capable and cost efficient longhaul international fleet among US airlines and that will have enormous implications for the competitive environment in the US airline industry.

  5. @Nick – the fact that a difference of 300 miles on the route can make or break the feasibility should be of great comfort to passengers who might encounter an IRROPs situation such as weather, diversion from the destination airport, etc…

  6. @tim Dunn’s comment makes even more sense when you add in the SM program changes. Delta is likely figuring the premium international business is what they want and those are the customers who will get the whole perks package.

    Occasional fliers will buy on price or schedule.

  7. Hey United, when will we ever see a new route from IAH? It would be nice to have a direct flight between Houston and ANYWHERE in the Iberian peninsula!

  8. Though Mr Leff must have informed sources, I agree with @30West. It would require substantial ORD behind point traffic, and I don’t see enough market opportunity to achieve results.

    (Hah – this a a joke (!), but I imagine the DL response would have to be DTW-JNB!)

  9. thank you, Doug.
    Of course my comment makes sense and it is rooted in the reality that Delta has been flying to S. Africa for over a decade, United just jumped in, quickly expanded and either sees potential to expand that Delta also will chase or UA’s current routes are not working and they want to try to switch something – if the “rumor” is even true.

    UA came through the pandemic convinced that it would buy up all the aircraft that anyone could produce so no one else could grow (which has proven to be grossly wrong), hold onto older aircraft so that they can grow – and yet infrastructure has limited their growth as much as anyone else’s, and grow as fast as they can in international markets – but their international share in markets like China and S. Africa is limited by treaty – and UA has a smaller share of traffic in some countries like China than it had pre-pandemic.

    If it makes sense economically for United to expand, others will too and they can find the resources to do it.
    If routes don’t work, there is a process to move them in a regulated environment. If United wants to move S. Africa flights, Delta will have as much to say as United said about Delta and Haneda.

    personally, if it comes down to it, I say let United move some of its IAD-South Africa flights to Chicago in return for letting Delta move PDX-HND to JFK.

  10. ironically, superflyboy, the route UA flew DEL-EWR yesterday to avoid Armenia and Azerbaijan, is longer than if UA flew BOM-EWR flying the same route over Saudi Arabia and Israel.
    It took 17 hours, about 40 minutes longer than usual, but the 787 made it; maybe you know if it took payload restrictions.
    and that route is about the same length as JNB-ORD.
    DEL, of course, is not at 5500 feet of elevation as JNB is.
    A 787-9 could make it and Boeing is reportedly rolling out a higher weight version.

    The question is not where UA COULD fly but HOW UA plans to serve ORD to/from S. Africa given that it has a slight advantage in flights over DL even if the number of seats between the two is very similar because of DL’s larger aircraft.
    UA is either going to ask for more flights or move limited access flights – either of which will provide an opening for DL or perhaps AA.

  11. Or maybe Delta is not as great as Timm Dunn thinks they are. Or Doug was just being sarcastic.
    Not only Delta is renewing adding to their long haul fleet. United’s different 787s could provide far more flexibility than DLs strategy. And if the 350 is really such an outstanding airplane – United has some options or orders as well. But somehow they might not pull that option….

  12. nobody says that the 787 isn’t a great airplane.
    But the A350 is larger and more capable. You need only look at seat charts for a bunch of airlines and then flights that are in-flight for each fleet type to see that the A350 can do what the B787 simply cannot.
    And the A350-1000 is the most capable and efficient long-range aircraft currently in service or will be for the next 5 years. Delta won’t be waiting 5 years to get -1000s if they order. And if Delta takes delivery of the -1000 before UA gets it or the 777-8, if UA orders that aircraft, DL will have an enormous capability and cost advantage.

    And United itself has said that there is a long wait for aircraft which is why they placed such a massive order. In reality, UA holds options that are nowhere near term.

    UA had a fleet advantage last year and this year. The tide is turning very quickly.

    And UA still can’t do in international aviation what it wants any more than DL can. Both still fly the same number of flights to China, DL can’t move its PDX-HND route without interference from UA and UA won’t move its S. Africa flights without interference from DL and AA.

  13. @Tim Dunn…. Delta delta delta delta delta delta delta delta delta… yawn. You take every opportunity to diss United. Dude, go outside and get some fresh air. You’re exhausting.

  14. There is definitely a market for a direct route from ORD. Not only do we have a huge expat community in the Midwest, but it’s a great connection point. UA could potentially take all of AA’s customers, who currently have to fly through LHR or Qatar. Flights to SA are oversold every day on most carriers and the ticket prices aren’t cheap. Cargo alone will bolster the profit margin.

  15. tell you what, Patrick.
    When Scott Kirby and the execs at UA can get through 2 earnings calls in a row without comparing themselves to other airlines, often with cherrypicked, made-up claims and plans that will never become reality, I will give it a rest.

    Why is that it ONLY UA execs have this deep-seated need to compare themselves to other carriers?

    Why can’t United just do what United needs to do and let its work stand for itself? People that understand can make the comparisons and keep those comparisons to themselves?

    And, specific to S. Africa, Delta has been flying to S. Africa for well over a decade and was the only US airline to do so for years. And Delta made plenty of money while UA was losing money flying the Pacific being the largest.

    Competition is good, UA saw opportunities in Africa, DL saw opportunities in the S. Pacific and the difference between each other’s route systems is much smaller and could be closed within a couple years.

    Alot of longhaul international routes are possible because of aircraft that can technically do the routes and be able to do it economically. United’s problem is not whether the 787 can be pushed to do Chicago to JNB but where it will leave its older and less efficient 777s. Considering that jet fuel is back over $3/gallon, the bandwidth for trying sexy new routes is a whole lot smaller.

    And the chances are very high that some of UA’s S. Africa flights are not doing well which is why the rumor got started. Given that jet fuel has been much lower for much of the time that UA has been in S. Africa, it says a whole lot about any potential desire to move them. And if they simply want to expand, they have to get the US-SA treaty reopened which just might give AA the opportunity to add MIA to S. Africa.

  16. Surprised that this route needs so much capacity. Almost all the traffic originates in the USA as very few South Africans have the means (less than 20% of South Africans are middle class or above) or possess a visa to travel to the USA.

  17. To the person who said 350-900 would be better has no clue what they are saying.
    A350 are heavier than dreamliners. Delta is having so much issues out of Atlanta with them.dreamliners have a longer range than A350s

  18. Methinks it is Bill that doesn’t know of what he talks.
    Do you know, Bill, that every member of the A320 family is heavier than comparable B737 models and it is the extra weight that makes it more capable?
    Do you also know that Delta only has 2 of the most capable versions of the A350-900? The vast majority of the A350 fleet are early build and considerably less capable?

    Delta tried to replace its 777LRs – the longest range aircraft in the world at the time – with alot of early generation A350s and THAT is why they have had operational challenges.

    They will receive 16 new build A350-900s in the next 2 1/2 years plus whatever A350-1000s they order – all of which will be more capable.

    The A350 is simply a more capable and larger aircraft than the 787-9 in comparable versions.

    And yes, I know that Boeing is upgrading performance of the 787-9

    The A350 simply operates the longest range flights in the world.

  19. No way would I fly on United on a 15 hour flight. I flew on South African and it was great with 34 inch legroom.

  20. I love all these arm chair CEO’s trying to say if the route is profitable or how ‘unsafe’ a 315nm difference is. you are truly clueless to how air travel works.

    Typically, if you’re adding frequencies to a given destination it’s because you are either A, trying to create the demand for a route to eventually become profitable. OR, you know based on your insane data collections and revenue generation on a current route market that a new one is necessary.

    And also, just because ticket prices are “high” does not mean it makes any money. I bet there is a ton of cargo that goes on that route which shippers pay a high premium for.

    When I used to run a cargo warehouse, I would see a shipper pay $700 for a 300lbs small crate item BEFORE fees, taxes, charges.

    So, yes, I do see UAL adding this route and I hope they do.

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