United Airlines is betting on a small percentage of its widebody fleet playing a large role in helping expand its international footprint, scheduling its reconfigured premium-heavy Boeing 767-300ERs on several new routes and upgrading flights in established high-yield markets.

United’s latest international additions, unveiled Aug. 22, include new seasonal service between Newark Liberty International (EWR) and Nice, France, starting in May, as well as year-round flights between Chicago O’Hare International (ORD) and Zurich in March. United will also add a second daily flight between EWR and Frankfurt in March. The common thread: Each route will be flown with newly reconfigured, 167-seat 767-300ERs that feature 46 business-class seats and 22 in premium economy.

The smaller-capacity 767s have 12 fewer seats than its Boeing 737-9 narrowbodies and two fewer than some of United’s higher-capacity 757s that fly transatlantic routes. But the 68 premium seats are 40 more than United has in its most generously outfitted 757s, which have 142 total seats. The airline is betting that the increase in premium seats worth trading for a heavier aircraft with higher operating costs.

“It’s a more expensive aircraft, but it’s an entirely different passenger profile,” United VP-international network Patrick Quayle said.

United’s widebody fleet is set to grow to about 200 aircraft by year-end. As part of its Polaris cabin upgrades, United will convert 21 767-300ERs to the premium-heavy version, though not all of these will be flying by 2020. Aviation Week Data Services show that nine of the 767s have been converted to the 167-seat layout so far.

The airline’s strategy to grow traffic 4%-6% per year relies heavily on getting more feed into its US hubs. But international expansion is needed as well. The new premium-heavy 767s can add to the airline’s network by targeting high-end leisure markets.

“We’re rethinking the way the company expands,” Quayle said. “It’s a focus on premium leisure, expanding the map to places that have not been tapped previously.”

The aircraft are also useful for adding capacity in proven business-heavy markets, such as London, that are already well-established.

“It’s a heavier airplane, but we think the revenue potential more than makes up for it with the premium-class seats,” Quayle said.

United’s latest announcement also includes new seasonal service between EWR and Palermo, planned to start in May. New weekly seasonal service between Curacao and EWR is set to start in December. United is also adding a second daily flight between EWR and Amsterdam Schiphol starting in May 2020. 

The carrier plans to keep its Denver-London Heathrow flights, which were seasonal, making them year-round. It will do the same with its San Francisco-New Dehli flights.

All of the new widebody flying will be accommodated with aircraft set for delivery, not by changing existing service, Quayle said. The airline plans to end 2019 with 807 mainline aircraft, including 196 widebodies and 16 737 MAXs already overdue for delivery. Its 2020 delivery schedule includes 17 new widebodies: 15 787s and two 777-300ERs.

Sean Broderick, sean.broderick@aviationweek.com.

Fleet analysis by Nigel Howarth, nigel.howath@aviatonweek.co.uk.