United ditches Auckland-Houston

Remember the promise of a 787 flight from Auckland to Houston Intercontinental (IAH)? It was made by pre merger Continental. At approximately 11900 km (7400 miles), the new route was to be the longest from Continental’s Houston hub.

I was very excited by this possibility.  Houston is a much nicer airport than Los Angeles and the flight would get you into the heart of the USA.  For me, Melbourne-Auckland-Houston-Philadelphia for example (as nightmarish as it sounds) is much more preferable than Melbourne-Sydney-Los Angeles-Philadelphia. Changing planes at Sydney is a hassle and in Los Angeles it is awful.

The only caveat was my expectation that service would have to be better on the 787 than United’s awful Sydney-Los Angeles service. The aircraft certainly would be nicer than United’s aged 747s they use out of Sydney. I have dropped my Star Alliance Gold in favour of my higher Virgin Australia status so am less inclined to want to fly United. My Virgin Platinum gives me access to benefits with Air New Zealand and Singapore  (both Star Alliance partners with United) Delta, and Etihad.

At the Auckland end, Continental would have picked up  traffic from Australia and New Zealand through its Star Alliance partner Air New Zealand.  (and now Virgin Australia would have fed some traffic in through its Air NZ code share- not a lot but some). At the other end, United would have fed passengers into the route from all of the East Coast, Chicago

On May 22, United Airlines started selling tickets for its first 787 flights. The service was not the long promised Auckland-Houston flight but Denver and Tokyo instead. This service will start March 31, 2012. At 9320km (5790 miles), it is a little shorter than the Auckland one was to be.

United CEO Smisek said “That flight was heavily dependent on connecting traffic through IAH” but it would now  “no longer be economically feasible to fly the 787 on that route, since there will be a drain on international traffic from IAH.” Auckland Airport’s response was  “It is very disappointing that this important new service connecting New Zealand and the United States has been caught up up  a local Houston dispute over airports.”Then last week it announced that the Auckland flight will be shelved,  following a decision to allow competitor Southwest Airlines to begin international flights from neighbouring Houston Hobby airport (HOU).

I am not convinced that this is the real reason for the dropping of the flight.

  • Consider, Southwest does not start international flights until 2015. United would have had two years of flying the route before Southwest started its services
  • My belief is that Southwest is going to be flying short haul international. They would be flying to the Caribbean or Mexico not long haul destinations like London or Auckland so how does that affect this long haul flight? Its a very different market surely?
  • Most people connecting to a long haul flight to Auckland from Houston will be coming from domestic destinations across the USA not international
  • For Australian and New Zealand passengers, Southwest flying international is an almost complete irrelevance.
  • Tokyo has a population of 13,185,502. Auckland is 90 per cent smaller

I think the real reason is that in 2012 when United did some sums, the economic benefit of this flight didn’t add up, meaning Air New Zealand now hold the monopoly on all US-NZ non stop services. This may be good for the national carrier, it can only mean higher fares ultimately.




  1. Thanks united, indirect competition on routes to mexico means you cant fill a plane to NZ….I know Southwest uses terrible routings, but HOU-AKL-CUN wont be one anytime soon!

    At least be honest with the cuts and say its a tough economy and thats what happens in a merger….

  2. I would much rather fly Air NZ anyway via LAX. UA has crappy crews, with the possible exception of the Narita base.

  3. I am not a huge fan of United. I was a fan of Continental.
    You are right Air New Zealand are way superior.

  4. Exactly Noah, I was trying to picture how many hops a Southwest 737 would need between HOU and AKL?

  5. There is a network effect to the connecting flights. Adding the WN international flights at HOU portends a further buildup of HOU as a bigger hub for WN – and perhaps WN will have more or new connecting service to SFO, PDX, DEN, SLC, SMF, as well as competing on profitable routes to MEX. Of course UA doesn’t want this competition, and perhaps they forecast a smaller hub as a result of the competition, as some market share shifts to WN and perhaps yields are lower.

    Perhaps the AKL services was forecasted to be in the red for a few years before turning profitable. Or perhaps oil prices are higher today than when they announced the route and that is enough to make it unprofitable. We’ll never really know what went into their thinking, but a WN build-up at HOU does come at some expense to the IAH hub – that’s simply unavoidable as O/D traffic is key to profitability of a hub and some O/D traffic will be lost.

  6. Minor type, you said DEN-NRT starts in 2012.
    Less minor: It isn’t that WN will compete on HOU-AKL it’s that their LatAm will reduce UAs LatAm demand, cutting flights not only between IAH and LatAm, but also LatAm dependent domestic flights, reducing feed for AKL. While I think that these layoffs were probably already coming, international service from HOU didn’t help.

  7. All UA had to do was fly the IAH-AKL route with thru service to SYD and it would have worked….but they are too stupid to realize it.

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