UPDATE: At ~6pm EDT on 3 June UA CFO John Rainey was quoted in a FlightGlobal story saying it isn’t going to happen. And many of the reasons I mention below are part of the thought process.
Let me be very clear: The idea of United Airlines taking on two A380s is about the most ridiculous thing I can think of right now. Not because the A380 is unlikely to be a good fit for the company’s operations (and it is not likely a good fit) but because taking on two of any aircraft type is mostly ridiculous. And yet, even with all the ridiculous, a few conversations yesterday have me thinking that the rumors may have some legs this time, certainly more likely than four years ago when the same thing was suggested.
Why not 2?
The costs to put an aircraft type into service are not trivial. Maintenance plans, spare parts and operational logistics would be significant components of the efforts. Sure, the company could outsource much of that but there are still bits which must be handled internally. Pilot training is another factor and, while it is possible to follow an “upgrade” path for existing Airbus pilots in the company there would likely be some seniority issues to consider as well. Of course, limiting the plane to only one or two routes means only stocking spares and training maintenance workers and upgrading other facilities in one or two airports, but it is still a lot of money.
If you’re adding a dozen or more of the type into the fleet then these costs are much better amortized, but with only two it is very hard to make the numbers work.
United operates at
six seven hubs on the US mainland. Of those only one is logistically viable for putting an A380 into place. Newark is out because of runway/taxiway constraints and no gate facilities. Denver has no gates and only one United intercontinental flight, the recently added DEN-NRT 787-8 which suggests no demand to match the lack of capabilities. Dulles has A380 gates but they are in the A/B concourse, far from where United operates. They are also in use during the evening departure banks to Europe. Houston similarly has a couple capable gates but they are occupied most of the useful parts of the day by other airlines. O’Hare has no gate facilities, though studies are ongoing about getting that done. LAX does have A380 facilities but only in TBIT, not in the terminal area United uses for flights. That leaves San Francisco as the only UA hub where there is gate space available for the A380 to operate.
Looking at the other end of the flight, United would need to find destinations where there is high demand and limited capacity available. China is one possible option. Both Shanghai and Beijing have limited capacity during time banks which are economically feasible to US flights and United has been trying to add a second flight to Shanghai but has held off because of such limitations. Putting a bigger plane in might mean that second slot is no longer necessary, though there are still the challenges associated with filling such a large plane.
Perhaps filling the plane on its own is too big a challenge to bear for United, especially given the multiple hub strategy. But what about partners?
United has immunized joint ventures across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (though China is not part of the TPAC JV) and that’s where things get really interesting. If United wanted to launch SFO-FRA, for example, the costs associated with that operation would be split between a number of airlines, not borne just by United. That’s not to say that the other carriers are all going to chip in and help United pay for the planes or the maintenance training, but the cost factors do shift a bit. I still don’t think they shift enough with only two planes in the fleet, but things get a bit more reasonable.
The SFO-FRA route is interesting in other ways. It is just a bit too long (10:55 eastbound, 11:30 westbound) to be reliably operated with a single aircraft. So United would need another, shorter route from SFO to fill out the schedule. And Shanghai isn’t it. Neither are Sydney or Hong Kong. All of them are too far to be a single turn daily with one aircraft. Also, of those only HKG is covered by a JV agreement.
I honestly have no idea. I think that a multi-hub airline buying in to the A380 ecosystem is a massive mistake. I think that a US carrier doing it and throwing the capacity discipline which has made the industry profitable in recent years is similarly ridiculous. And buying only two of a plane is a vanity thing, not a rational fleet planning decision. Even if Airbus simply gives the planes to United gratis there are very real costs associated with running them in the fleet. And having only two planes likely means only one route would work, at least from SFO which is the only reasonable place today they could be based.
Of course, taking on more planes would help with some of the cost numbers but would also destroy the capacity discipline and there probably aren’t enough routes and partner to share that across.
So, yeah, these rumors are a hot mess. But a reasonably fun one to think about.
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