United Airlines Looks To Fly SFO – XIY (Xi’an, China)

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

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United Airlines has applied to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) for permission to commence non-stop flights between San Francisco and Xi’an, China.

The proposed service would be seasonal (May – October) and would be flown using United’s new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners. The application to the DOT shows that the service would be 3 time weekly and would fly on the following schedule:

UA853 SFO 13:25 – 17:30+1 XIY (Tue, Thur, Sun)
UA852 XIY 10:30 – 07:35 SFO (Tue, Thur, Sun)

The first flight is tentatively scheduled for 8 May 2016.

Flying times are (approximately) 13hrs 5mins westbound and 12hrs 5mins eastbound

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'anScreenshot from Great Circle Mapper

Should this route get DOT approval it would become the first non-stop service between the US and Xi’an and United would be the first US airline to serve the city.


I confess that I had to look up Xi’an when I saw United’s press release and, to be honest, I’m still not 100% sure why they’ve chosen to fly this route. If no other airline (including Air China, China Eastern and China Southern) sees the need to fly a non-stop service between the US and Xi’an I’m left wondering what United have noticed that others haven’t.

Here’s what United have to say about their new destination:

Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China, at the eastern end of the Silk Road. With a population of more than 8 million, it is one of China’s oldest cities and an important cultural, economic and educational center. The plains surrounding Xi’an are home to the famed Bingmayong (Terracotta Warriors), thousands of life-size, hand-molded figures buried with China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.

Images of Xi’an

Xian-bell-towerImage: Dimitry B via Flickr

xian-terracotta-warriorsImage: Luciano via Flickr

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

If I was to venture a guess as to why United are trying out this route I’d say that it had to do with technology – terracotta figures and beautiful temples are great….but they’re not going to fill a 787  three times a week. A quick web search for Xi’an shows that it has a large (and ever growing) software and technology industry and, with the proximity of Silicon Valley to San Francisco, it could be that United thinks it can capture a market-in-waiting.

United’s 787-8 Dreamliner

United has their 787-8 Dreamliners configured as 2-cabin aircraft (although they do have their pseudo-premium economy, “Economy Plus”, section onboard).

United Airlines 787-8 seat mapSeat map courtesy of Seatguru.com (click to expand)

With the westbound flight scheduled at a little over 13 hours and the eastbound flight coming in at a little over 12 hours, seat comfort will play a major role in the inflight experience.

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

The seat pitch is pretty standard for United wide body aircraft but, the slightly narrower frame of the 787, puts it at a disadvantage when compared to United’s 2-cabin 777-200 offering:

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

An inch may not sound like much but if you’ve ever compared a 17″ seat to an 18″ seat in practice, you’ll know that it can make a lot of difference to the comfort of a flight – and we’re not getting any slimmer as a nation!

The United BusinessFirst seats look ok if a little underwhelming (images courtesy of United Airlines)….

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

…..and they don’t all have aisle access, and that’s less than impressive.  If you’re in a window seat you’ll find yourself stepping over the person in the seat next to you each time you want to use the restrooms or stretch your legs – and there shouldn’t be any reason to have to do that on a brand new aircraft.

Luckily for United they don’t really have to up their game on this route as there’s absolutely zero competition – they would be the first non-stop service to Xi’an from the US – but when airlines like American are offering a cabin like this on their 787 aircraft…..

American Airlines 787 Business Class

….you have to wonder what United were thinking when they chose their BusinessFirst seats for the 787.

The interior specification, according to United, are:

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

Unsurprisingly there aren’t many official photos of the economy cabin in the 787 and the one that United provides doesn’t really tell you much….

United Airlines San Francisco to Xi'an

For me it all comes down to seat width and leg room. For a 13+ hour flight I’d definitely pay the extra for Economy Plus and, at 6ft tall, a 35″ seat pitch is bearable for me. But I’m not convinced on the seat width. I’m hardly the widest of people and even I think that a 17.3″ seat sounds terrible on a 13+ hour flight – it’s why I avoid regular economy flights across the Atlantic on American (non-Main Cabin Extra seats are just 17″ wide on the 777-300!).

Overall, as I always say, it’s nice to have a new route to try but I’m not sure I’m going to be in any hurry to try this one out. The economy offerings don’t sound comfortable (I’d love to hear from anyone who’s tried them out) and the BusinessFirst looks like something from 2005 – and I’m not about to pay for that. I think I’ll wait to see if the competition move in on this route and offer something better.

Have you flown on United’s new 787-8 (or -9)? What are they like and are they bearable if you’re at the back?



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