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Airline Alliances, Airlines, Argentina, LAN Airlines, Star Alliance, United Airlines

United giving up in South America?

Wow, this is a shock. According to various reports, including Flyertalk.com member “JOSECONLSCREW28”, a United (sCO, the “Continental” internal subsidiary that is still a separate operating division) flight attendant, UA is killing off the East Coast US-to-Argentina flight, leaving only a Texas-Argentina flight. They are just bailing out and giving up.

United Fleet Site banner

If you’re a serious flight geek, you can find more details of United cutbacks, including this one, on the United Fleet Site, an unofficial website that I believe he (and others) maintain. I’m being deliberately general on the locations, rather than city names, never mind airport codes, on those flights, because they’ve moved and changed a lot during the three years running of the United-Continental merger. To be specific, the to-be-eliminated flight is New York-Newark Liberty International (EWR) to Buenos Aires Ezeiza (EZE). The only remaining United flight to EZE will be from Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH), the former Continental headquarters and primary Latin America hub for the combined airline.

The NYC-area flight was originally not out of New York/New Jersey at all – it was the long-standing (pre-merger) United flight from what used to be UA’s primary international hub for Europe and Latin America, Washington DC –  Dulles International (IAD), in northern Virginia. I’ve taken that flight, and it was always crowded. As a former UA 1K top-earned-level frequent flyer, with lots of eastern-US connections, I’ve been in IAD hundreds of times for connections, often late evening when the United South America flights departed around 10 or 11pm. Huge crowds.

But the Continental management that is now running the combined carrier as “United”, has practically “de-hubbed” IAD, at least for international. They moved most of the flights on widebodies to Europe up to Newark, the former Continental northeastern hub, “down-gauging” remaining ones mostly to narrowbody (and old) 757s. They moved the South America flights mainly up to Newark; in the case of Buenos Aires, adios entirely to Washington. Because of the stupid “two airlines internally” slow mismanaged merger and clique-ish competing work groups without joint contracts, where “sUA” (pre-merger United) planes go, “sUA” flight attendants and pilots must follow. Which lead to horrible on-time reliability from EWR being an “sCO” (pre-merger Continental) base, without parts and good mechanical support for the United versions of the 767s flown on that route.

Same for the 2-days-delayed Lima flight to Houston I was on a year ago, from that being a CO base with this random UA flight. I arrived at Lima for my 10pm flight at about 5pm – to find nearly 200 people from the previous day’s canceled 10pm flight being told their plane wouldn’t be here till 2am, and who knows when our plane, the current day flight, would arrive, never mind depart.

The logical thing would be to put these “United” flights back at “United” bases like Washington Dulles, and win back customers. Especially with Brazil’s TAM, now owned as part of the LAN airlines merger result “LATAM Airlines Group” moving out of United’s Star Alliance into LAN (and American’s) oneworld tie-up, that means no more Star widebodies from the USA into a major South America hub, unless United flies there. Since a lot of Star Alliance airline FF program members might want a traditional widebody for longhaul to South America, one in which they could either earn miles on their favorite program of the 25 or so airlines in the alliance, or use their home program’s miles to fly on an award, you would think that UA had an opportunity here.

Instead, they are cutting their deep South America service significantly, with Buenos Aires cut in half. Actually cut further, because the pm-UA 767s they now fly there are just 2-class coach and business (coach having E+, the extra legroom Economy Plus, but unlike Europe/Asia carriers, that is not a “premium economy” product as a separate class, it’s just a slightly better seat.)

I already gave up on United down here. My last several trips back and forth to the States were mostly on Star members Taca (as part of AviancaTaca group, with the entire group now re-branding only as Avianca), or on Star member Copa. Paid tickets for the most part, except one-way on Copa burning up the last of my United MileagePlus miles, earned from crediting paid UA and Star flights over the years to the old United Mileage Plus or the old Continental OnePass. (My OnePass account went back to the Eastern Airlines days, and some of my lifetime miles that came from it are from PeoplExpress, which is how Continental got that Newark hub!)

I no longer even credit flights to MileagePlus; instead I credit them to AviancaTaca LifeMiles. Even if flying in the USA on United, or a few months back, on US Airways. (US is still in Star for now, pending a few months post-AA-merger.) Much better FF program. And much better airline. Despite Taca (ok, Avianca) being all narrowbody on the Montevideo-USA routes, and needing two connections for all but Miami:  Lima, Peru (LIM), and then San Salvador, El Salvador (SAL). Sometimes I take Copa, but that will either earn or “burn” AviancaTaca LifeMiles from now on. That’s also all narrowbody, though usually just one connection in Panama City, Panama (PTY). Even though United MileagePlus is also Copa’s “home” FF program, I have no desire to enrich United when I fly Copa. Let Copa pay Avianca for my LifeMiles earned, rather than pay United!

It’s a darn shame that United, and by extension, the full widebody international experience on Star Alliance overall, is practically abandoning South America. There is still an Air Canada flight from Toronto (YYZ) to Santiago, Chile (SCL), with a “tag” flight on to Buenos Aires (EZE). But that’s out of the way for most of the USA, despite Toronto Pearson being a great airport for US-to-foreign connections with easier customs/immigration/security clearance than connecting inside the USA, and Air Canada being light-years better than United. (Stop laughing, Canadians, it is. I know you hate AC, but it’s way better than UA!)

Oh well. Taca (Avianca) is quite good, and its airports are easy connections with comfortable layovers and decent services. Copa is good, and Panama (PTY) is a cinch for easy connections. Both those Star choices are better than UA, despite the planes being physically less comfortable as narrowbodies for longhaul. Service definitely better!

If I want widebody service and true international service (including just in coach, my normal hangout), LAN and TAM are both very good. Oh, how did I finally get back from Lima last year? After about a 6 hour wait, I finally got a United (contract worker, not employee) to put me on LAN to Los Angeles. Lovely flight, like almost all of my LAN flights have been over the 7 years I’ve been sometimes flying them. They can make money running the same kind of 767s to South America. Wonder why United can’t?

About Mark Mercer

Expat aging sometime-ski-bum former corporate tool. Currently living in the beachside aging resort town of Atlántida in Uruguay. Sometimes skiing and teaching in Breckenridge, Colorado, USA. Location and velocity cannot be simultaneously observed.

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