While the introduction of the Boeing 787 into service has been anything but smooth, we are finally starting to see the power of this airplane. Three route announcements in the last week caught my eye (from United, British Airways, and Norwegian), and each was made possible by the existence of the 787. What's most interesting: Each route works because of a different characteristic of the 787. This airplane really is going to have the power to transform a route map—and provide even more cities for connections around the world.
United Goes to Chengdu
For years, United has flirted with making Guangzhou its third Chinese destination (not counting Hong Kong), but it never quite made the list. Now, United has leapfrogged Guangzhou and instead will begin thrice weekly flights on the 787 to Chengdu in the west of the country. (It's a good thousand miles or so away from Beijing.)
Chengdu is huge, with more than 14 million people in the general area. It's also the tech center of the west of China, and it's growing quickly. KLM flies there from Amsterdam, and British Airways will start from London in just a couple weeks. But nobody flies from the Americas, and for good reason. A flight from San Francisco to Chengdu is pushing 6,000 miles in around 14 hours. That's further than it is from New York to Tokyo. Today, you need a big, long-haul airplane to fly that route, but the demand just isn't quite there to fill it... yet. With the 787, United finally has an airplane that can fly long routes with only 219 seats. And it can fly those people economically.
This route couldn't have been considered several years ago, but now it's going to happen. And it means United will provide the only single-stop service to Chengdu from a lot of places within the U.S.
British Airways Heads to Austin
Earlier this week, British Airways made the surprise announcement that it would start flying five weekly flights from London to Austin. This will be Austin's only nonstop option to Europe, and you have to imagine people are insanely excited about it.
This may sound similar to United's Chengdu route. After all, it's an airline flying from its hub to a tech center in another country. But there is one key difference: BA has a 189-seat airplane today that could fly this route, the 767-300. The 787 is bigger, with 214 seats. That makes the per-seat cost for BA much less than the 767, which is why the airline can now justify this route.
Norwegian Goes to LA and San Francisco
Before I even talk about this one, I should note that the jury is still out—at best. Norwegian is attempting to do what no airline has done successfully in recent memory: run a low-fare operation over the Atlantic. Aer Lingus and Icelandair are the closest options, but those are hybrids. Norwegian is trying to do a real low cost carrier, and that has failed time and time again.
Norwegian is gambling that the extremely efficient 787 will be just what's needed to finally make a low cost carrier succeed over the Atlantic. The problem in general is that fuel becomes such a high cost on long-haul flights that low-cost carriers just can't bring fares down much. Norwegian thinks, despite the high cost of buying the 787, that it can make money thanks to the high fuel-efficiency.
Its most recent route announcements were surprising, to say the least. Los Angeles will see three weekly flights to both Copenhagen and Stockholm, with a single weekly flight to Oslo. San Francisco will get three weekly flights to Oslo and two per week to Stockholm.
Although Norwegian is trying to go the low-cost carrier route, if these routes succeed, I think it will be for a different reason. Nobody flies any of these routes today. (SAS pulled out of the LA–Copenhagen route years ago.) So people will actually pay more to go to these cities, if that's where they need to go. The problem is, there just aren't a ton of people going to these cities from the West Coast.
So Norwegian will have to combine its nonstop demand with those who may just want to connect to the rest of Europe. That will require low fares to work, because connections are a dime a dozen. Will the 787 prove to be the airplane needed for this to succeed? Maybe, though I remain skeptical. Regardless, it's exciting to see something like this get a shot.
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