United Air Deepens Bet on Leisure Flights That Bypass Big Hubs

United Airlines Holdings Inc. will expand domestic flights that bypass its hub airports, bucking the traditional network strategy of big U.S. carriers and extending a push to entice more leisure travelers as demand recovers.

Starting in late May, United is planning 26 nonstop flights from seven Midwestern cities to three destinations in South Carolina, one in Florida and one in Maine, according to a company statement Thursday. The new service follows the November addition of direct flights to Florida from the East and Midwest that avoided the company’s hubs in Chicago and Newark, New Jersey.

The strategy reflects demand from vacationers for nonstop service that keeps them away from large, potentially congested airports amid the coronavirus pandemic, even as U.S. vaccination rates increase. Faced with a severe dearth of business-passenger and international traffic, major airlines have also revamped large parts of their networks to serve leisure travelers.

The additional nonstops to Florida, which United considered an experiment, “performed extremely well for us,” Ankit Gupta, the carrier’s vice president of domestic network planning, said in an interview.

With the traditionally busy summer travel season nearing, “demand is trending up, and over the past three or four weeks we’ve seen a significant uptick for passenger bookings,” he said.

Despite the gains, current sales are “still nowhere close to the 2019 levels,” Gupta said.

In May, United said it will operate 52% of its schedule compared with the same month in 2019, before the pandemic. The company flew 14% in May 2020 compared with the previous year. Domestically, total flights in May of this year will be 58% of the 2019 level, Chicago-based United said.

Using direct flights to bypass the biggest airports goes against the traditional approach of United, Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc., which typically strive to channel passengers to major hubs for connecting service. In normal times, those connections -- typically processed through multiple daily “banks” of flights at such cities as Atlanta, Dallas and Denver -- provide the bulk of the big airlines’ domestic profits.

United’s new nonstop service will focus heavily on Cleveland and Cincinnati, which is a former Delta hub. Other flights will serve Columbus, Ohio, as well as Indianapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

In South Carolina, the nonstops will fly to Charleston, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach. Pensacola, Florida and Portland, Maine, are also getting service. Most of the new flights will be on 50-seat CRJ-550 regional jets.

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