United started flying between San Francisco and Tel Aviv on 3/30/16 with 3 weekly 787-8 (788) flights. The flight was so successful that it was bumped up to daily 788 service by October 2016.
In January of this year, El Al announced that starting in November it would compete with United by flying 3 weekly nonstop flights between San Francisco and Tel Aviv on their 787-9 (789) aircraft.
I was surprised that El Al decided to pick a battle with United. They would offer far fewer flights and United operates a fortress hub out of San Francisco with locked in corporate clients and fiercely loyal elite members. Cities like Baltimore/DC and Chicago were wide open for the picking at the time, though United later announced plans to operate their own nonstop service from DC to Tel Aviv.
“United serves that route with 787-8s that do not have direct aisle access from all business class seats, while El Al’s 787s do have direct aisle access from all business class seats.
United could respond by protecting their hub with 77W Polaris service with direct aisle access from all business class seats between San Francisco and Tel Aviv, but that will flood the market with tons of extra coach and business class capacity that will drive down airfares. That could be a short-term strategy to try to force El Al out of the market. But either way, the added capacity should be a good thing for consumers.”
Sure enough, United soon upgauged the San Francisco-Tel Aviv route from a relatively small 788 to a massive 777-300ER (77W). The United 788 has 36 business class seats, 70 economy plus seats, and 113 economy minus seats. The United 77W has 60 business class seats, 102 economy plus seats, and 204 economy minus seats.
That capacity combined with El Al’s 789, which has 32 business class seats, 28 premium economy seats, and 222 unpremium economy seats, would flood the market with capacity. The added capacity would significantly drive down margins, which could ruin the business case for the route.
That scared El Al enough to postpone the launch of their San Francisco service from November 2018 to 5/13/19.
United then announced that they would downgauge the route back from a 77W to a 789 on 10/27/18.
However they have now announced that they will upgauge the route from a 789 back to a 77W on 4/28/19, 2 weeks before El Al plans to launch their San Francisco service. It’s also in time for summer 2019 service, though there is no other United route to Israel with seasonal aircraft adjustments.
It’s worth noting that El Al will have an advantage in coach comfort, but business class is what makes or breaks a route’s profitability.
El Al has a true premium economy cabin on the 787 with wider seats and better amenities, while United’s 77W’s economy plus only consists of extra legroom. United is planning on launching their own premium economy starting with the 787-10 later this year, but it will be many years before that arrives on the pre-merger Continental 777 fleet that operates between Newark-Tel Aviv.
United packs in 10 seats across on the 77W, even in economy plus. That’s why I recommend taking the afternoon 772 (777-200) between Newark and Tel Aviv if you’re flying in coach as there are only 9 seats across on the 772. On the other hand I’d recommend the evening 77W between Newark and Tel Aviv if you’re flying in business class as it has 4 seats across versus the 6 across on the afternoon 772.
The 787 is more comfortable in coach with 9 across than the 10 across 77W, but business class on the 77W is better than on the 787 due to aisle access from every seat.
Will United’s move in San Francisco cause El Al to bail on the route before it begins for a 2nd time?