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United Airlines cargo planes to share space again with passengers

Carrier piggybacks on cargo service to help restart trans-Pacific network, adds direct flights between Shanghai, San Francisco

United Airlines is adding flights to Europe and South America from George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, pictured here. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

United Airlines’ (NYSE: UAL) decision to convert some cargo-only flights between Asia and San Francisco to passenger service and resume nonstop service between the West Coast city and Shanghai will provide some much-needed capacity and speed for businesses desperate to move goods by air.

United said Friday that its three weekly passenger-freighter flights between Taipei, Taiwan, and San Francisco will change to passenger flights and that mini-freighter flights between San Francisco and Seoul, South Korea, will also revert to passenger flights at an increased frequency of five times per week.

United Cargo has operated more than 6,300 temporary freighter flights since mid-March using Boeing 777 and 787 airplanes sidelined after the coronavirus eviscerated most travel demand, helping transport more than 213 million pounds of medical supplies and general cargo worldwide. 

Jan Krems, United’s cargo chief, foreshadowed the transition from cargo to passenger flights in a recent interview. Supply chain flows are driving international route selection until enough travelers make it financially worthwhile to layer on passenger service. Passenger loads are not clear yet, but likely are not sufficient to make the flights profitable without strong cargo bookings. The twin-aisle planes deployed by United are very large and don’t sacrifice much cargo space by adding passengers, especially when load factors remain lower than normal.

On Sunday, United also announced it will operate four weekly nonstop flights between Shanghai and San Francisco with 777-300 Extended Range aircraft, eliminating the existing stopover in Seoul to change crews. Prior to suspending service in February due to the coronavirus outbreak, United offered more service to China than any other U.S. carrier, including five daily flights between Shanghai and its San Francisco hub.

“We are able to resume nonstop service between San Francisco and Shanghai due to a combination of both government and internal United Airlines testing and accommodation requirements to ensure we can safely operate,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said when contacted.

China was slow to allow United and other U.S. carriers from resuming flights over concerns about reintroducing COVID-19 from an outbreak hot spot, leading to diplomatic tensions and reciprocal flight restrictions on Chinese airlines. China eventually approved more flights, but United initially opted to route flights through Seoul, beginning in early September, to avoid aggressive Chinese health checks and quarantine requirements for crews.

November schedule increase

The change in the cargo-passenger mix was part of a broader announcement that United will resume service on 29 international routes in November, operating 38% of its schedule compared to November 2019. Service additions include Denver-Frankfurt, Germany (three times per week), Houston-Frankfurt (increased to five weekly) and Houston-Rio de Janeiro (three times per week). The carrier is also rebuilding its network by offering popular leisure destinations in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Central America and Mexico. 

The Chicago-based airline’s international capacity is six points more than offered in October. 

Overall, United plans to operate 44% of its schedule, up four points from October as the company dials back domestic service in response to ongoing outbreaks of coronavirus and fewer bookings. 

Domestically, United said it intends to fly 49% of its schedule compared to last November, highlighted by the resumption and introduction of service from several cities to destinations in Florida. 

United, and other airlines, have shrunk operations to save money until travel demand increases. United has been particularly careful about calibrating capacity to travel demand, especially with decreased bookings after the post-Labor Day start of the school year and virtually nonexistent corporate travel. United last week furloughed more than 13,000 employees after the U.S. Congress failed to extend for six months a payroll support program. 

Click here for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Eric Kulisch. Contact: [email protected] / Twitter: @ericreports


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F3: Future of Freight Festival


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.


  1. James H Harris

    Some of us will remember that Boeing made/manufactured/configured a Boeing 707-320C. Northwest Orient Airlines typically used it in their US – Orient routes. I flew aboard one as a passenger — and I also worked for NW – in ATL & NYC. The configuration was flexible, in that cargo space could expand or contract – a logical endeavour.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]