Musing on United Airlines A380 rumors

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.

Rendering of a United A380 from a flight simulation game. Oy.

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.

Operational Constraints

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.

Read More: Airbus claims that United is reportedly looking at the A380

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.

So what??

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


      1. Gate issues aside ORD would seem to make a lot of sense (as an A380 destination – leaving aside the issue of whether it makes sense for UA to get A380’s at all). From there they can do a daily turn to LHR or FRA with one plane. And there’s enough demand on at least a few routes out of ORD to justify this amount of capacity.

        1. I agree that the flight timing could work. I disagree about the demand on those routes. Maybe you can consolidate the 4 daily flights to FRA down to 3 daily trips but part of the appeal of that schedule is great onward connections at both ends depending on which flight you take. Dropping one of them would hurt some of that connection flow.

          1. Take your point re: FRA since so many connections are routed through there, but the impact of reducing frequency would be less on ORD-LHR, since it isn’t a partner/Star Alliance hub, so more of the traffic is O&D or there are other alternative connections. Still, overall I agree that it makes little sense for UA to acquire two A380s.

  1. The only time using a 380 makes sense is in resource constrained airports. If using a 380 allowed multiple flights to be consolidated and thus free up slots, gates etc for other routes. I don’t think any UA hubs fit this description, except perhaps Heathrow? Would putting a 380 on say Newark and Chicago to London allow them to add service to other cities? I think it’s unlikely they would want to do this.

  2. I’m not sure it matters much with Jet A where it is today, but the A380 also has four engines and so, with only something like 500 passengers, it isn’t as efficient per passenger seat-mile as several of the two-engine alternatives. Getting the planes for free would help, though. A lot.

  3. I think one could safely assume it will be a high density configuration at least in the back. The A380 is certified for over 850 passengers. Expect 11 across in the back. It can be efficient in the high density configuration. Perhaps they see this as a way they can compete against the Norwegian and the Gulf carriers…

  4. United + A380 = evil. Pure evil (for economy at least)
    I really haven’t flown economy A380 where I feel the service didn’t suffer…and UA isn’t exactly market leader in this category.

    1. Upper deck, rear Y on SQ 380, SFO-SIN was one of my best economy flying experiences. Cant imagine UA offering the same layout but if they did, I think they will attract more customers than a plane with more dense seating.

      1. I imagine if they gave free ponies in economy they’d attract customers too. And it’s about as likely as buying two A380s for the fleet.

    1. There is insufficient *A feed at LHR to make that work IMO. Of course, I don’t have all the numbers, but I’d be surprised to see UA turn that into a *A feed for SFO flights given the number of other *A flights to SFO which also work easily with existing connections.

    2. I was thinking the same thing – SFO to LHR a bit shorter than FRA and is also part (if I’m not mistaken) of the joint venture with Lufthansa. However, the current R/T flight time with a 747-400 is 23 hours, which would be similar with an A380. That leaves 3 hrs total to do two turns if the goal is to use one plane for a daily roundtrip on this route – and that may be too little margin for error even though it should be doable when everything goes right.

      1. Yes, SFO-LHR is part of the JV/ATI. But, as you observed, it is very, very close to the limit on what can be done with a single plane.

        Also, the whole demand issue is still not particularly clear.

  5. I wonder if they are looking at going back to AKL? Would be tight with a single plane, and the turn around times back from AKL are late afternoon/evening, but they could add a 5th freedom flight to SYD/MEL to fill the day. There are definitely A380 gates at AKL. Plenty of demand on the routes to NZ, and also on the trans-Tasman. Would be about time AirNZ had some competition.

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