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United unveils largest-ever expansion in Australia, New Zealand with 6 new and upgraded flights

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United Airlines is about to become the largest carrier between the U.S. and the South Pacific.

To earn that title, the Chicago-based airline announced on Tuesday a slew of new flights and expanded service: It will connect more U.S. cities with some of the most popular destinations in Australia and New Zealand, including an all-new route-map pin for United.

This expansion, timed with the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere, is partly fueled by United’s partnerships with two big players in the South Pacific aviation market: Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia. Together the carriers offer one-stop connections to nearly 50 destinations in the region.

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Some may be skeptical about all this expansion, but Patrick Quayle, United’s senior vice president of global network planning and alliances, thinks otherwise. “I think this is a very calculated, very rational move on our part,” he said, adding that the move is made possible by partnerships and the fact that United’s competitors aren’t back to pre-pandemic capacity levels in the South Pacific.

flight route map
United’s three new routes are in red, while the three upgraded routes are in blue. CIRIUM

San Francisco to Christchurch

United will launch its first-ever direct service to Christchurch, New Zealand, on Dec. 1. The thrice-weekly nonstop flights take off from San Francisco.

The airline will deploy a 243-seat Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner featuring 28 Polaris business-class pods, 21 Premium Plus recliners, 36 Economy Plus seats and 158 standard economy seats on this 6,912-mile route.

Christchurch hasn’t been connected to the U.S. with nonstop flights since Air New Zealand pulled out of the market in April 2006, Cirium schedules show. Interestingly, American Airlines planned to launch a seasonal Los Angeles-to-Christchurch route in late 2020, but that service never materialized due to the pandemic.

Assuming that the United flight launches as planned, it’ll become the only nonstop to New Zealand’s South Island from the U.S. That’ll likely help the airline fill the airplane with visitors looking to explore one of the most beautiful parts of the South Pacific. The island is known for its plethora of outdoor adventures and picturesque landscapes.

Of course, the tie-up with Air New Zealand will also help funnel connections beyond Christchurch.

“We have the right hub, the right airplane, the right LOPA [layout of passenger accomodations], and the right partnership that will enable this to be a success,” Quayle told TPG.

Quayle said that Christchurch has been on United’s radar for a while, even before American announced that it would start flying there.

“I always thought, and we always believed that if anyone was gonna fly to Christchurch, it should be United Airlines, in part because of our partnership with Air New Zealand,” he said.

Moreover, United is uniquely positioned in the market, Qualye added. “We have the ability to sell open-jaw segments where people can fly into Auckland, people can then fly Air New Zealand down to the South Island and then fly United from Christchurch back [to the U.S.], or they can do vice versa,” Quayle said.

Los Angeles to Auckland

auckland skyline
HUAFIRES/GETTY IMAGES

United already flies daily service from San Francisco to Auckland, and now the carrier is adding a second flight to the largest New Zealand city during peak season.

Beginning on Oct. 28, the airline will connect LA with Auckland on a seasonal basis using the 257-seat Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner; it’s outfitted with 48 Polaris business-class pods, 21 Premium Plus recliners, 39 Economy Plus seats and 149 standard economy seats.

This 6,504-mile route will go up against Delta’s newly launched daily service in the market, and it’ll complement Air New Zealand’s up-to-two daily flights between the cities.

Los Angeles to Brisbane

Last year, United launched its first-ever service to Brisbane, Australia, with a new route from San Francisco (more on that below). The airline has been pleased with the performance in the market, as it’s now adding another flight to this Australian city from LA.

The LA to Brisbane service will commence on Nov. 29 and operate three times a week using the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

United’s growth in Australia is partly supported by its tie-up with Virgin Australia. While the San Francisco-to-Brisbane service was the first example of the partnership in action, these new flights show that the two airlines are serious about growing together.

Virgin Australia used to operate long-haul flights before the pandemic (including on this route). After restructuring with an all-Boeing 737 fleet, it now lets United provide the feed to and from the U.S. in exchange for carrying passengers within Australia and throughout the region.

The partnership has been a win-win for the two carriers, and passengers are already benefiting from more routes, reciprocal frequent flyer perks and expanded codeshare agreements.

“I think everyone’s playing to their strengths. We’re really good at long-haul. We have the widebodies … Virgin Australia is a great partner, too,” Quayle said. “They are great at the domestic Australia flights on the 737. And so it allows them to play to their strengths and allows for them to have a more simplified fleet and a simplified operation and allows for us to offer service into their hubs. We’ve worked very closely with them from a passenger standpoint to make sure that it’s a seamless connection.”

San Francisco to Brisbane

As mentioned, this route launched to much fanfare late last year. It’s already getting a notable upgrade in the form of daily service — up from three times weekly — for the winter season, beginning on Oct. 28.

San Francisco to Sydney

This is one of United’s bread-and-butter long-haul routes, but it’ll now operate twice a day beginning on Oct. 28 using the largest jet in the fleet, the Boeing 777-300ER.

United-Boeing-777
ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

It’ll complement the airline’s existing flights to Sydney from LA and its seasonal service from Houston — the airline’s longest route at 8,591 miles.

The airline has already been selling the two daily winter flights from San Francisco to Sydney for a few weeks but is just now formally announcing them as part of this broader network update.

San Francisco to Melbourne

This past winter, United flew nonstop daily flights from LA and San Francisco to Melbourne, Australia. Both of those routes will return for the upcoming winter season.

Moreover, the airline will upgauge the San Francisco service from a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner to the Boeing 777-300ER, adding nearly 100 daily seats to each departure.

United will offer 65% more seats to Melbourne compared to winter 2019.

Bottom line

United just announced the largest expansion in aviation history between the U.S. and Australia and New Zealand.

The airline is adding one brand-new destination in New Zealand, starting two new ultra-long-haul flights and boosting service on three existing routes. The result is a nearly 40% increase in the number of flights between the U.S. and Australia and New Zealand compared to last winter.

Though the carrier is still struggling to maintain its domestic connectivity in small regional markets, United has had no trouble growing internationally, both in transpacific and transatlantic markets.

With an upcoming order for up to 200 new fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliners, United should have no problem filling out its long-haul route map with more destinations in the South Pacific and beyond.