A substantial expansion by United this summer in the transatlantic marketplace will transform the carrier into the largest U.S. airline in terms of U.S.-Europe service.
What remains to be seen is whether the shift turns out to be largely short-term and tactical as opposed to a long-term, strategic maneuver.
"This is a continuation of the 'fly where you can and where you think the demand is going to be' strategy. It has just shifted from sand and sun to Europe," said airline industry consultant Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co, referring to the substantial changes airlines have made to their route maps throughout the pandemic as demand patterns have been upended. "But I think long-term, it's also a strategy to take on Delta for primacy on the global network side."
From June through August 2019, United offered fewer seats than both American and Delta between the U.S. and Europe. Delta's offering that summer of 3.9 million U.S.-Europe or Europe-U.S. seats was more than 600,000 higher than United's, Cirium flight-schedule data shows.
But this year, United is scheduled to fly 3.7 million seats in the U.S.-Europe marketplace, an increase of 12.8% compared with 2019. Meanwhile, Delta is scheduled to offer 17% fewer seats than it did in 2019, while American has scheduled 15.3% fewer seats.
The upshot, Cirium data shows, is that United will be close to 300,000 seats above Delta in that key aviation market this summer and a robust 900,000 seats ahead of American.
How did United Airlines fly to the top?
As United boosts its Europe offering, it will fly to five new destinations: Bergen, Norway; Nice, France; Ponta Delgada on Portugal's Azores archipelago; Palma de Mallorca, Spain; and Tenerife in Spain's Canary Islands.
The carrier is also boosting its transatlantic service beyond Europe, including the addition early this month of thrice-weekly service between Washington Dulles and Amman, Jordan.
Overall, United is launching 10 new transatlantic routes between April and June.
Airline industry analyst Brett Snyder, who writes the Cranky Flier blog, said that the buildup is partially a manifestation of aircraft availability. As it was before the pandemic, United is by far the largest U.S. carrier in terms of service to Asia. But with travel recovery to Asia lagging well behind Europe, United has an especially large number of aircraft that would normally serve Asia to redeploy.
Furthermore, United retained its entire widebody fleet during the pandemic, while Delta shed its Boeing 777s and American got rid of its Airbus A330s and Boeing 767s as well as its Boeing 757 narrowbodies, which have the range to service some European routes.
American is further hamstrung in Europe this summer as Boeing works toward FAA approval to resume 787 Dreamliner deliveries after manufacturing defects were discovered in 2020. Delivery delays of 13 787s caused American to eliminate planned summer service to Edinburgh, Scotland; Shannon, Ireland; Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Prague, Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, United's potential in Europe got a boost this month when the FAA cleared the way for the carrier to bring 52 Boeing 777s back into service. The planes had been grounded since February 2021 due to a Pratt & Whitney engine failure that sent debris into the Denver suburb of Broomfield.
Will United's dominance last?
Snyder said he expects the current dynamic, with United offering the most Europe lift and American a distant third, to be short-term.
"Give American more aircraft and they'll come back," he said.
Still, he expects United to remain in some of the experiential European markets it is launching this year.
"I would be shocked if all these come back next year. Some will probably do better than others," he said of routes like the Canary Islands, Mallorca and the Azores. "But United is going into this thinking that these can work."
Mann said that United is striving for long-term dominance.
"Kirby is a huge fan of the Newark airport," he said of the United CEO. "He thinks they can be the No. 1 carrier internationally going forward. He's dismissed American as a competitor, essentially, and he's aiming to surpass Delta's primacy."