United has suspended Hong Kong flights from Chicago which follows a number of American Airlines discontinued flights from the windy city. Why can’t US carriers make Asia work from Chicago?
United Suspends Hong Kong from Chicago
This week, United announced the suspension of Hong Kong flights from Chicago. Despite concerns that this shift may be in relation to the protests, United wouldn’t cancel such a stalwart route for a temporary problem. That’s not to say that those with discretionary plans won’t change them from Hong Kong for the time being, but protests didn’t spell the demise of the route. While most of United’s Pacific expansion was the result of purchased routes (planes and hired staff) from Pan Am in 1985 as the carrier struggled with labor unions. I only wish American would have sold their routes to United as Doug Parker and his team struggle to do anything right.
The loss of the Hong Kong route is particularly disappointing due to its historic nature. The route, added in 1996, was initially operated by a 747-400 was at one time the longest flight in the world at 7,788 nautical miles. United operates a 777-200ER on the route until September 9th, 2019 ending a 23-year run.
American Cancelled Nearly All Asia Flights from Chicago
American Airlines, who also operates a hub in Chicago, last year cut flights to Shanghai, Beijing and reduced Tokyo flights to thrice weekly. American has a joint venture operation with Japan Airlines who also serve Chicago. If it weren’t for that business relationship with route covenants, I wouldn’t be surprised if American left Asia altogether from Chicago.
American has found better luck operating from Dallas where they added flights to Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing over the last couple of years while withdrawing from Asian markets from Chicago including Delhi.
Foreign Carriers Can Make It Work
Plenty of foreign carriers are able to make Chicago routes work. Currently, Cathay Pacific, Asiana, China Eastern, Eva, Korean, and Japan Airlines all fly to east Asia, with Turkish, Emirates, Royal Jordanian, Qatar, Etihad flying to west Asia/Middle East.
Some of those carriers have subsidies directly from the government. That would help to overcome any route shortfall. But US carriers are not without their own subsidies, they just take different forms. There is plenty to argue about on that topic, but this isn’t that post.
Origin and Destination Traffic
Many of those utilize connecting traffic with their alliance partners United and American to other points within the US. But presumably connecting traffic works both ways with US travelers traveling for business and leisure to points beyond those partner cities and from points other than Chicago.
The answer, I believe, is in Origin and Destination traffic (O&D.) Passengers that are flying solely from Chicago to major cities in Asia choose Asian airlines. It’s not hard to figure out why. Cathay Pacific has one of the best business class products flying, so much so that American Airlines licensed the seat for their 777-300ER flagship aircraft. United Polaris, which competed with Cathay on the route from Chicago, didn’t offer their true Polaris product and if they had, that product still lags behind Cathay.
Asian carriers have legendary service as well. It’s not just a matter of quality flight attendant service from the US carriers – many of the most experienced fly the longest international routes. It’s extras like catering, things the carriers like American and United choose not to invest in the same regard as the foreign carriers. Look no further than American’s horrendous attempt at “gnocchi” on the Hong Kong-Dallas route that was so bad I gave up on American Airlines and matched to United.
United can serve their Hong Kong based customers from better O&D markets like San Francisco and Newark, with San Francisco being the best possible point for nearly any connection (aside from Seattle or Anchorage.) American has more O&D traffic from Dallas and owns Dallas-Fort Worth with over 94% of traffic and adding more; connecting in Chicago was a distraction that lost the company money. But it is surprising that US carriers can’t seem to make Asia work from the windy city.
What do you think? Why can foreign carriers make Chicago work while US carriers struggle? Do you think it will change in the future? Should foreign carriers step up to fill in the void?