United Continental (NASDAQ:UAL) tried to capture some media buzz last week by teasing "an historic package of new and expanded international routes" to be unveiled on Wednesday.
The reality was a little more ordinary. United plans to significantly expand its international service from its San Francisco hub during 2019. However, many of the additional flights had been announced previously, and only one of the truly "new" routes was especially noteworthy.
United has been spreading its wings in San Francisco
During 2018, United Airlines has accelerated its capacity growth. Its main goal has been to add more capacity in the domestic market (including more flights to smaller cities) in order to regain market share and strengthen its hubs. However, United is also on track to expand its fleet of international widebodies by 14 aircraft.
A lot of United's international growth has come in San Francisco. Not only is San Francisco United Airlines' gateway to the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region, it's also a booming regional economy in its own right. In late October, United Airlines began a second daily flight between San Francisco and Singapore. Shortly thereafter, it started flying three times a week between San Francisco and Tahiti.
United has also previously announced several service additions in San Francisco that will go into effect in 2019. In March, it will begin daily service between San Francisco and Amsterdam. United's seasonal route to Auckland will return to year-round service around the same time. Most recently, on the day that it launched the new Tahiti flights, the carrier announced that they would operate year-round rather than seasonally (as originally planned).
More new routes coming
On Wednesday, United Airlines revealed that it will launch several other new international flights from San Francisco next year.
United Airlines will begin twice-daily service to Toronto on March 31. It plans to begin offering a second flight between San Francisco and Seoul four days a week as of April 1, complementing its existing daily service on that route. United's international expansion will resume in the fall. It will begin flying between San Francisco and Melbourne three days a week on Oct. 29, while daily seasonal service to New Delhi will begin on Dec. 5.
In total, United's new and expanded international service from San Francisco will touch seven destinations and add up to 41 additional flights per week.
Good moves, but nothing earth-shattering
United Airlines' teaser about an historic announcement had some pundits speculating that the carrier was planning to return to Africa in a big way. By contrast, while the changes announced this week will further solidify San Francisco's position as the best West Coast airline hub, they don't really qualify as historic.
For one thing, the new route to Amsterdam and the decisions to switch to year-round service on the Auckland and Tahiti routes had all been announced earlier this year.
Meanwhile, extra flights to Seoul are just par for the course, considering that the Bay Area and Seoul are both massive metropolitan areas with huge technology industries. The only surprising thing about the new twice-daily route to Toronto is that it didn't already exist, given that Toronto is one of the 10 largest metro areas in North America. And the flights to Melbourne are just a case of (almost) keeping up with the Joneses. Qantas began serving that route four days a week back in September.
The one truly interesting new route included in this package is the daily seasonal flight to New Delhi. This will be a faster route to India for United fliers coming from the western part of the U.S. than the alternative of flying through its Newark hub. That said, Air India flies between San Francisco and New Delhi already. Furthermore, United's flight schedule isn't very appealing, with a 12:45 a.m. arrival in India and a return flight that departs at 4 a.m.
Still, these new route announcements further elevate United Airlines' San Francisco hub over its rivals' hubs in Los Angeles and Seattle in terms of flight options. That should be good for business in the years ahead.