United shifting some 747s away from SFO

United 747-400s departing Sydney's Kingsford-Smith airport (Aero Icarus)

United 747-400s departing Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith airport (Aero Icarus)

United could be watering down its strategy of making SFO its Boeing 747 hub, based on summer 2014 schedules released earlier this month.

For example, starting April 1, 2014, United will switch out its aging 747-400s on the SFO to Sydney and Melbourne flight and deploy newly refurbished, three-cabin 777-200ER’s on the route. It’s also taking the 747 off the SFO-London Heathrow route and will use only 777s. And it’s replacing the 747 on the SFO-Osaka route with SFO’s first scheduled United 787 Dreamliner.

Economy class on United's refurbished 777 configured 3-3-3 (Chris McGinnis)

New economy class Recaro seats on United’s refurbished 777 configured 3-3-3 (Chris McGinnis)

AUSTRALIA: The switcheroo on the Australia flights is good news for economy class passengers who suffer through the 14-hour odyssey to Oz at the back of the plane on United’ old 747’s from both SFO and LAX. The newly refurbished 777’s are more comfortable at the back with a 3-3-3 configuration (vs the 747’s 3-4-3), and individual seatback video screens. United says that the 777s will offer its new satellite-based wi-fi and in-seat power outlets, too.  (See this BAT post for a slideshow of the refurb and updated 777 interiors.)

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For those flying in business and first class, the switchover will not be as dramatic– the flatbed seating on the 777 is similar to the 747.  But it will be sad lose those nice biz class seats upstairs in the bubble of the 747. That’s one nice ride up there, especially for long overnight flights.

Which aircraft would you prefer for the long flight down under… the 777 or the 747? Why? Please leave your comments below…

Upstairs in biz class on United's 747 (Transworld Productions)

Upstairs in biz class on United’s 747 (Transworld Productions)

The move represents a significant reduction in capacity on the route—those big ole 747s hold 374 passengers, while the 777s only carry 269, with eight in first class, 40 in business, 117 in Economy Plus and 104 in economy.

With Qantas gone, and United reducing capacity, brace for some painful price hikes for nonstops from SFO to Sydney and Melbourne. Currently, roundtrip economy fares on SFO-SYD are in the $1,500 range, business class is running close to $9,000 and first is around $17,000. Fares typically run cheaper if you are willing to stop in LAX on the way down.

Where are those 747’s going to go? Well, some are going back to Chicago, where United will run the big birds nonstop from O’Hare to Frankfurt, Shanghai, Tokyo-Narita starting next spring. United will also deploy two 747s per day on the SFO-Tokyo (Narita) run. (H/T to Routes Online)

What does this mean for United’s recently announced strategy to make SFO its 747 hub? That seems a little murky at the moment. When TravelSkills asked, a spokesperson would only say: “Most of our 747 flights will continue to operate to and from SFO,” but would not comment on whether these moves represent a shift away from the 747 hub strategy.

Which aircraft would you prefer for the long flight down under… the 777 or the 747? Why? Please leave your comments below…

Chris McGinnis


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  • RobertW

    I’m 6’7″ and fly to AU yearly in Business class on a miles upgrade. The reduction in capacity is extremely troubling. For the past few years, it’s become more and more difficult to secure the upgrade, now with a lot less Business seats, it’s going to make it nearly impossible. I may be looking elsewhere to give my business to.

  • ElJay

    There was never a grand strategy to make SFO a 747 “hub”. A large number of the UA 747s were approaching major maintenance milestones, and since the UA heavy maintenance base is at SFO, scheduling lots of 747 flights (and their corresponding aircraft layovers!) there allowed them to do much of this maintenance without having to reposition the aircraft. They can spin this as much as they want, but it was a pragmatic decision done primarily to make the maintenance less logistically painful. Now that most of the 747 maint is done, they can reposition aircraft more in line with actual demand as opposed to servicing needs. And before anyone gets all paranoid about the maintenance stuff, this is all pre-planned periodic stuff – it’s not like UA was skimping or anything like that…. it’s just a lot cheaper to tug a 747 across SFO for 5 hours of work than it is to take it out of service for a couple of days and remove it from it’s “normal” route.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Hey Aussie… I’ve not heard otherwise. Check your booking which should tell you aircraft type. Have a good trip! — chris

  • aussiegeo

    Does any one know if this roll out running on time? I’m flying sfo-syd in late April and am hoping the planes are updated. I flew the same route last year and the old 747 was dreadful.

  • astenv

    Flying upstairs in the 747 SFO to FRA is the most pleasant flight that i have ever taken, From a CO Million Miller.

  • Jackson

    I prefer the upper bubble flight in the 747/400.I also prefer the safety of a 4 engine plane whether only perceived or really true.While on this subject,the business class lounge in Sydney is certainly better run than the one in SFO.

  • JIM

    Gah! As long as they aren’t touching the 744 on the SFO-NRT run (and sounds like they aren’t). I lament the reduction in the number of Biz seats as upgrades now will become super competitive. But then again maybe the minimum dollar spend requirement for the 2014 Premier qual might loosen things up a bit, we don’t know.

    It’s always something…

  • shrike2112

    I took the fam to Europe last year and our Transatlantic was SFO-LHR on a UA 777. We were in Economy and the individual IFE’s kept the kiddos busy and I found the selection of movies and television shows to be more than adequate. The service was quite good as well (first beer was on the house). I can’t believe UA hasn’t made a move to personal IFE on the 744 as it seems to be the standard for transoceanic in all classes on other major carriers thise days.

  • Snead Hearn

    Economy-plus on United is a lifesaver.

  • David D.

    United economy is depressingly terrible, and the 747 configuration is so bad that I actively avoid it. I flew to Australia in 2009 and took Qantas specifically for this reason. I flew on 777’s on a trip to Europe last year and they were barely tolerable. In other words, who cares? The United product is so bad that I avoid it as much as possible. The only thing going for United at this point is its Star Alliance membership.

  • flybizz777

    Gut feel on this B777 v B747 on the Australian market to US, by the fall through Jan. you will again see the 747’s on this route as it is the peak of the season for this market. Nov-Jan. Though I agree that United B747’s coach class is brutal in economy section in terms of config and IFE.

  • flybizz777

    Yes they do

  • flybizz777

    Operations yes, maintenance no..planes will just be on a “RON” remain over night basis leaving ORD with one spare per the plan. Also 787 will be covering SFO-KIX route as part of the new schedule, that free’s up a 777 and a 747. For sure some work will be done on the plane as it stays overnight in ORD.

  • Michael James

    I have been a life long UA 777/744 over the Pacific and do prefer the 744. Granted that there was not personal IFE but I had the opprotunit of using their Wifi rcently on the PEK-SFO route and found it to be respectible. Also having my own IFE, books, iPad ect, helps make up the time.

    I am more interested in the power outlets on the 777 to keep things going.

    As for the poster who said the 747 maintenance and hub is movng to ORD? This is a false rumor. The ORD 744 pilot and crew base is not opening up again and the 744 will fly a W route that will bring all the 744s back through SFO. Furthermoore, SFO is Uniteds only US MOC and I spoke toma Supervisor there today and he said they did not receive any notice and the Union needs to be notiifed if any major reductions happen at SFO.

    United is sending them, the 744, there because the reliability has improved. Don’t say that to the passengers on UA 900 yesterday as the flight had to return to LHR due to a MX issue.

  • vato_loco

    I’m poor so I always fly economy. Recently flew to Seoul on a UA 747-400. Although this really isn’t a commentary on the 747, but rather United, the interior seemed shabby & cramped. Service was appalling for a long-haul flight. We rarely saw the flight attendants and were actually hungry when we landed at Incheon. In contrast the AA 777 I flew to Buenos Aires was far more comfortable, better service, better everything.

  • John Smith

    When flying economy, anything but a United 747. Business or First, it really doesn’t matter (even though the upper-level bubble is nice).

  • y_p_w

    I prefer the 777. I remember how nice it was in coach.

    Once I flew to Asia and back on United. On the way it was a 777 with individual monitors on the back to the seat with a selection of constantly recirculating movie channels. Going home was on a 747-400 that was probably 15 years old and still using CRT monitors dropping from above.

    I mentioned this to a flight attendant on the flight home, and he said he’d rather be in a 747. Something about 4 engines being inherently safer than 2 over long distances should an engine fail.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Mike! Good point. — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Interesting! Thanks for the tip! — chris

  • Virgin is Better

    United is moving its 747 maintentance and hub operations back to Chicago. I heard it last week in Chicago directly from an executive who is an acquaintance.

  • Grace

    I’d love to fly in the upper deck of a 747, but if I’m in economy the 777 would be better.

  • Mike F

    This does not bode well for frequent flyers trying to use their Systemwide upgrades. It is difficult enough already to get an upgrade on an International flight on UA and this will make it next to impossible. Yet another reason to look for alternatives to UA.

  • Natalie

    I prefer the 777’s. I’ve treated United international flights from SFO as verboten due to the poor economy service (flew to LAX to take Virgin Australia and Delta for my last 2 trips to Oz). Will the 777 to Heathrow also have seatback entertainment?