United Airlines is “looking closely” at a non-stop Dublin – San Francisco route, probably employing a B787 Dreamliner.
Interviewed yesterday by ITTN’s News & Features Editor, Neil Steedman, United’s James Mueller, Vice President Atlantic and Pacific Sales – who was in Dublin yesterday to celebrate United’s 15th anniversary serving Ireland and for today’s inaugural Shannon – Chicago flight – said: “There is no announcement today (!) but we are looking closely at a non-stop Ireland – US West Coast service and San Francisco is a major hub for us. Customers in the IT space in California are asking for more international routes – and those in Ireland! Consistency of service is important, of course, and we are watching this issue very closely. Such a route would be ideal for our B787 Dreamliner fleet.”
Is the United-Continental merger now done, dusted and recent history?
“Yes, the vast majority of the integration projects are completed now and the customer experience is that of a single carrier. However, we will be introducing a brand new uniform for all staff later this month.”
United’s mainline fleet numbers reduced from 702 to 690 in the year to April 2013. What are the plans for the current year?
“There will be a good steady flow of fleet renewal, with mainline aircraft numbers being maintained around 700. We have orders for more than 125 new aircraft deliveries between 2012 through to 2019, including 50 B787 Dreamliners and 25 A350XWBs. We currently have six Dreamliners and two more are coming later this year.”
With Dreamliners due to commence operating your Houston – London service next Tuesday, 11th June, are all the recent problems with the aircraft now resolved?
“Safety is our number one priority, we are confident of the Dreamliner’s future and response from customers has been very positive. United has eight major hubs in North America and that’s why the B787 appeals to us – we don’t necessarily need extra large capacity aircraft such as the A380.”
How do you see the global alliances developing, particularly with regard to the fast-growing airlines in the Middle East and Turkey?
“There are two aspects to this question: breadth and depth. Airlines need to develop breadth of coverage and this is what distinguishes the Star alliance, of which United is a founding member, from the others. The next big opportunity is to develop depth, which is hard to do across 27 carriers, so closer co-operations with other carriers will be required – such as we have already with Air Canada and Lufthansa.”
On Tuesday United announced a deal with AltAir Fuels on the development of bio-fuels. Will this bring fuel cost benefits as well as environmental benefits – and do fuel costs keep you awake at night?
“Fuel is an airline’s largest single cost and airlines operate on low margins, but the US airline industry has started to move beyond that ‘problem’. No matter what the cost of fuel is – whether it be US$50 or $100 a barrel – we have to size the airline accordingly. Despite paying some $13 billion more for fuel in 2012 than in 2007 the airlines made much the same amount of money in those two years. For the future, it will certainly be important to be engaged in bio-fuels.”
Do you have any plans to operate out of Cork Airport?
“That’s an interesting question and one that we have been talking about this week! There is certainly consumer interest, particularly from pharmaceutical companies in the Cork area, but the key question is how many new customers would it bring that are not already being well catered for out of Shannon? There is also the factor that US immigration and customs pre-clearance is not (yet) available at Cork, so all I will say is that Cork is not on top of our list for new services.”
Would United consider a European call centre in Ireland?
“We have considered that in the past and United did have one, but we are always looking at how we can be most efficient and more and more customers are now able to serve themselves on their smartphones and tablets. Also, in the US we do not have call centres as technology now enables more and more use of home workers.”
United has traditionally been a strong supporter of travel agents. What percentage of bookings come through agents and how do you see that changing?
“In Ireland, North and South, around 70% of bookings still come from travel agents. In the USA there is far more ‘A to B’ traffic so more and more bookings are being made direct with the airline. Our strategy is that we want to be on the shelf where customers want to buy – so that includes our website, travel agents, online travel agents, and online booking tools.”
Is United interested in acquiring equity in Aer Lingus, should it become available?
“United has no plans to invest in Aer Lingus, which is already a nice partner for us.”
United played ‘hard ball’ with the UK Government over APD as regards your ex-Belfast service – and won. Do you have a deal breaker should UK civil servants or Ministers consider its reintroduction there?
“Some may see airlines as having proved to be efficient tax collectors, so there is always that threat, but as an industry we continue to lobby against what is a tax on exports.”
What percentage of United’s ex-Ireland traffic involves onward connections?
“About 50% of our New York-bound traffic is onward bound, mostly to destinations within the USA and with 5% to 6% going to Canada.”
Do you have a final message for ITTN’s readers?
“Well, I am delighted to be here in Ireland to celebrate two milestones for United – 15 years of continuous service since the inaugural launch to New York and this week’s inaugural service from Shannon to Chicago. We have a great team here in Ireland and excellent partners within the travel trade and we should be optimistic about the future.”