United Airlines To Revamp Tokyo Operations, Launch New Intra-Asia Routes With Boeing 737s

The inimitable Brian Sumers has broken the news that United Airlines is planning to expand its operation of Boeing 737s flying out of Tokyo Narita airport to other destinations in Asia.

United is launching Tokyo to Cebu in the Philippines in October (delayed by the FAA from July). But they’re planning more.

  • They have pilots and planes based at Guam
  • And those their Guam operation underperforms
  • So there’s an opportunity to move some flying to Tokyo, they believe

Sumers interviewed United’s network chief Patrick Quayle and Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella. Nocella offers,

But we have these 737s and a slot portfolio at Narita, and all the feed from the United States on widebody jets, and it created a unique opportunity. This seemed like something we would like to try, and the advanced bookings [for Cebu] indicate that it’s going to be very successful.

View From Hilton Cebu Resort

Pan Am and Northwest Orient had traffic rights not just to fly to Tokyo, but special rights to fly beyond Tokyo to other destinations in Asia.

Delta Air Lines inherited those rights to fly from Tokyo Narita to beyond-destinations, but the airline shut down its Tokyo hub. They got the most slots to fly to close-in Tokyo Haneda, and prefer to connect traffic over Seoul-Incheon onto their joint venture partner Korean Air rather than operating their own flights beyond Tokyo.

United Airlines picked up Pan Am’s Pacific network, which is one reason that United is so strong across the Pacific today. They merged with Continental Airlines, which had its own legacy Pacific operation and a hub in Guam. Continental Micronesia was merged into the larger combined carrier with the merger.

United no longer operates flights beyond Tokyo, to places like Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong. (They used to fly beyond Hong Kong as well, I’ve had the good fortunate of flying a United 747 from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City in first class.) United’s intra-Asia flying ended completely in 2017.

United Airlines Boeing 747 First Class, 2009

The world is different, demand is different, and United has unique assets worth trying to deploy – to see if intra-Asia flying from Tokyo works, and if not to fail quickly and pivot. Sumers has a good discussion about how United evaluates new routes in his premium Substack that I happily pay for.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Brilliant move given Delta’s abandonment of Asia and the Pacific.

    I’d love to see Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bali, and Hanoi. I imagine Manila, Saipan and Palau are probably also logical additions.

  2. I flew many flights from LAX to BKK on Northwest Airlines. When Delta took over, the writing was on the wall so I used up my miles and then moved on to EVA Air. Northwest flew 747s to Narita. The Los Angeles airplane continued on to Manila if I remember correctly and the San Francisco airplane continued on to Bangkok.

  3. UA is losing money trying to support operations at both Haneda and Narita. Local Tokyo traffic prefers HND and the economics of NRT connections are not high enough to offset the high costs.

    Further, UA says it won’t use widebodies beyond NRT and there is no way that 737s are competitive in many markets esp. deep into Asia. Secondary and tertiary markets like Cebu work where larger markets won’t.

  4. I was shocked to recently learn that Delta flies to only four airports in Asia today. They decimated Northwest’s legacy! United serves more than a dozen.

  5. Difficult for me to imagine a United customer crossing the Pacific in Business Class flat bed seat and then continuing the journey in a 737 upright seat. Jetlag hits the worst after Tokyo when a bed is needed most and every competitor has them.

  6. I’m a 2 million miler and don’t use UA to Asia anymore. The United fares are not competitive to/ from Asia and changing from flat bed to 737 is risky against competition. Just came back on Asiana and departed on Singapore.

  7. Tim Dunn says “UA is losing money trying to support operations at both Haneda and Narita. Local Tokyo traffic prefers HND and the economics of NRT connections are not high enough to offset the high costs.

    Further, UA says it won’t use widebodies beyond NRT and there is no way that 737s are competitive in many markets esp. deep into Asia. Secondary and tertiary markets like Cebu work where larger markets won’t.”

    I live in Anchorage AK and Cebu Philippines. I disagree completely that 737s are not competitive in this market. That is all that Cebu Pacific , Scoot, Air Asia uses in the intra Asia market! Many other flagship carriers including SQ and CX also use 737s. I agree that secondary markets like Cebu and Clark are underserved. Very difficult to get mileage tickets to either with planes always full. I dont think UA is losing money in the Tokyo market or they would not be looking to expand. I often fly thru both Haneda and Narita and the planes are packed.

  8. Jonny,
    As much as some people – esp. UA fans – mostly their employees that are on the internet – don’t want to hear it – UA’s international network is substantially less profitable than DL’s. DL, UA and every other large jet US carrier are for-profit companies.

    DL pulled down NRT because they believed that the future in Tokyo was at Haneda which was opening up for all of the flights DL needed to operate to the US, the Japanese would not allow DL to move its beyond NRT flights to HND, using widebodies beyond NRT did not yield good results, and DL committed to building a US mainland nonstop to Asia network as well as to deepen its relationship with Korean.

    DL’s post covid growth has been hindered by its decision to retire the 777s during the pandemic although the A350 burns about $6 million less fuel per year at current fuel prices. The A350 in its latest versions has longer range than the 777.

    DL with Korean is waiting for a decision on the KE-Asiana merger so cannot do anything that would disturb the US DOJ’s evaluation of the KE-OZ merger since DL has a JV w/ KE.

    DL has dozens of new A350s coming and will add service to cities in both East and South Asia but DL will make more money per seat mile than UA in part because DL walked away from Tokyo as a connecting hub while AA and UA have to support their Japanese JV partners.

  9. you’re clearly not smart enough to figure out that the more you whine, the more I write.

    Yes, United underperforms and it won’t fix it until it stops feeling like it has to be a new era version of Pan Am.

    How else can you explain UA making half of the profits that DL makes across the Atlantic in 2023 even though UA flew more ASMs?

  10. do you realize how ridiculous your statement is?
    the lies you believe because you can’t accept facts.

    Nobody is shilling for anyone.

    I am simply reporting facts that you don’t want to hear or read.

    If UA’s network was as profitable as some believe, there would not be a $2 billion profit gap between UA and DL

  11. Timmy, what lies?

    I’ve never said anything about UA. I’m not disputing anything about UA. I could care less what Delta makes. I too can read 10-Qs and 10-Ks. It’s not that hard. But you struggle with discerning fact from opinion.

    And yes, you were fired. You never dispute that. You dispute shilling for DL, but not that you were fired. Hah!

  12. “And yes, you were fired.”

    you would LOVE to believe that is true.

    I have also supposedly been the mayor of some city in Georgia.

    You do fabricate a reality in your head because you can’t accept facts.

    btw, UA has just filed a reduction in flights to PPT and to KIX for the winter – in line w/ the data that Cranky published which shows UA’s underperformance.

    UA has made several rounds of changes to reduce its underperformance across the Pacific last winter.

    As much as you think I just make stuff up, I have a pretty good idea of what is going in the industry despite not working in it.

    UA IS run by people that, while they make mistakes, are committed to making money.
    It is too bad that some of its employee fans are so hellbent on defending them they can’t see the reality which UA execs themselves are acting on.

  13. It’s funny to read all the back and forth between Tim Dunn and all of the UA fans…
    Here is my two cents…
    UA is looking for opportunities in Japan since they have a powerful partner in ANA… Delta does not!
    I remember when JAL was about to emerge from their bankruptcy reorganization… and try to pick a US partner … they chose AA instead of DL! It basically sealed the end of Delta’s Japanese plans in NRT…
    For those who just want the economics of the ‘old NRT’ to still work… it just not as profitable as the ‘old NWA’ days! There is Zero Growth in Japan! That is just plane truth! The power economy in Asia is Korea and China and Southeast Asia. The continued weakness of the Yen and Japan makes it very difficult to capture ‘premium fares’. NRT today is basically full of the Low Cost carriers of Asia. The high cost of labor and airport operation in NRT such as landing fees is perhaps the reason DL closed their hubs!
    The bottom line is that most Americans rather fly non stop to a destination… and not connect ‘anywhere’! Koreans and Chinese (culturally) HATEs connecting thru Japan! UA knows that! This is why they built a powerful hub in SFO! And DL is trying in SEA!
    When it comes down to it DL is still more profitable (without Asia) than UA! Their focus is about feeding their partners rather than flying their own metal! Like Tim said… it’s about profitability and they are doing something right!
    As I read the above comments.. I laugh at all the Internet Airline CEOs! No one airline can be everything for everyone!
    No airline can be strong in every market! I feel that UA and DL has their own strengths and who am I to question their strategy! They are both performing amazingly in the eyes of Wall Street and their share holders! That’s all they care about!

  14. Sonny
    good comments.

    UA acquired Pan Am’s transpacific network in 1986 or so and started to build a great hub at SFO.

    NW’s NRT hub wasn’t consistently profitable at the time of the NW merger. NW had no choice but to use a NRT hub because it did not have enough of a domestic presence esp. on the west coast to cover the US except to NRT. The DL/NW merger created a true nationwide carrier capable of supporting Asia service from across the US.

    JL rejected a JV w/ DL because DL was the largest US airline from the US to Japan at the time and believed that JV could not be approved. AA was and is the complete opposite across the Pacific. AA was chosen because it was so weak across the Pacific that there was no doubt the JV would be approved – and it was.

    Japan made the decision to turn NRT into a low cost carrier airport while opening HND again to US to Japan flights. THAT move is the death sentence of NRT as a legacy carrier TPAC hub; we are simply partway through the process esp. since HND does not have the capacity to host all US-Tokyo flights.

    you are right that DL and UA have both strengths. UA fans have long believed that they had some birthright to Asia. DL made it clear during covid that they would expand into the S. Pacific – where they had the weakest position of the big 3 – and grow in E. Asia.

    DL is now getting around to rebuilding their Asia network post-NRT; TPE just started and I expect DL will add/re-add a city per year (at least) in E. Asia. DL now serves AKL, SYD, and is starting BNE and an exec just said they have their eye on MEL. DL intends to offer in the S. Pacific what UA or any other airline does.

    UA added a lot of capacity esp. into the S. Pacific last year and all it did was hurt UA; DL’s 4th quarter profits were as good as they were in the 2nd and 3rd quarters.

    UA is cutting alot of capacity in the winter of 2024/25 because they undoubtedly now have received the message that DL intends to grow Asia/Pacific, enters each route w/ the ability to make its new routes work, and UA only hurts itself if it tries to dump capacity into the market to try to make DL’s entry into those markets harder.

    DL is going to grow at ICN once the KE/OZ merger is approved – which it certainly will even w/ some conditions.

    UA can keep trying to add flights to NRT but the local Tokyo market will continue to shift to HND making a NRT hub less and less viable. GUM is a unique market that is still dollar denominated and will face some of the same dynamics as Hawaii.

    Just as was true across the Atlantic last year, DL and UA will both be similarly large across the Pacific in a few years, esp. once Delta starts flying the A350-1000s. UA might be larger but will not make as much money as long as they have structural disadvantages such as NRT and GUM compounded by a “need” to be in markets for prestige or size.

  15. I’m a 5 million flown miler.. on One World. For years I traveled to Asia/EU/Gulf…from either Boston or Phoenix every month for 10 months/ year. The level of service, comfort and amenities have gone out the window on US carries… including BA. Regrettably, US carriers cannot compete with Asian or Middle Eastern carriers. It’s a sad day when your paying 10$K for a business class seat and when your water bottle runs out you can’t get a fresh/new one, they REFILL your empty bottle. Really?
    Singapore/Cathay/ANA/Thai/Emeritus/Qatar/Turkish/Etihad… sad but true.

  16. does it make any sense for someone who was fired to be accused of being their chief social media advocate as some believe?

    Makes no sense.

    Some people can’t accept what I have to say so make up all manner of means to denigrate what I have to say.

    None of which changes that United is a big, expansive airline but isn’t near as well-run as they or alot of people say.

    If UA was as well-run as they think they are, there wouldn’t be a $2 billion gap between their profit and DL’s.

    some people don’t want to hear those realities so invent everything they can to avoid admitting that what I write is true.

  17. This is an excellent way for UA to regain a market that its US competitors largely have treated as obsolete. The value of offering intra-Asia flights from NRT increases exponentially considering all the transpac flights (UAL and ANA) that arrive there from the US and that can now connect to secondary Asia cities.

  18. @Pam, you were on two of the best ones in one trip. How did they compare to United in your case?

  19. “you’re clearly not smart enough to figure out that the more you whine, the more I write.”

    Now that’s funny. Supposedly one of the smartest guys on here doesn’t know when he’s being played by everyone.

  20. marco,
    there are hundreds of secondary and tertiary cities around the world to which passengers from the US fly but US airlines can’t make money flying there.
    UA is simply trying to tinker with its failing NRT and GUM hubs in order to minimize losses.

    mr. mocker,
    and yet, I keep talking. You have what I say and the fact that I am speaking at all.
    The only person that is not smart is you and your ilk that can’t understand that if you simply accept what others say whether you like it or not, they might not write as much

  21. This may explain why, even after swapping a goodly number of future MAX 10’s for 9’s and 8’s, UA still plans to take nearly 40 MAX 10’s with lie-flat seats.

    That is waaaaaaaaay more than it needs for even generous transcon service and flights to Latin America.

    And with 50 A321XLR’s on order, it seems highly unlikely UA will ever put them in transatlantic service.

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