Long before the first snowflakes fall, United Airlines is planning cuts to its winter schedule.

While other U.S. carriers are bolstering their operations, United’s reductions will pare first-quarter 2015 seating capacity by 6.3 percent, Daniel McKenzie, a Buckingham Research Group analyst, said in a report today. The pullback is steepest on domestic U.S. routes and flights to Tokyo, according to McKenzie’s analysis of published airline schedules.

The shift is part of United’s strategy to match capacity to travel demand and strengthen financial performance, Chief Revenue Officer Jim Compton said. Chicago-based United plans to offer 25 percent more capacity during July, its busiest travel month, than in February, when demand is weakest.

“If we can find ways to grow our capacity in the summer at the expense of the winter, we think that overall that is just the right thing to do,” Compton said yesterday in an interview at the World Routes Strategy Summit in Chicago.

The 25 percent difference between winter and summer operations is about twice as much as United’s historical average and reflects its decision to ground the smallest aircraft flown by its regional affiliates.

Domestic airports that will see the biggest United cuts in the first quarter include Washington’s Dulles International Airport, where seats will fall by 14 percent, and Denver and Los Angeles international airports, each down by 7 percent. Seats to Tokyo Narita International Airport will fall by 17 percent, McKenzie estimated.

Better Timing

When flying ebbs in winter months like February, United plans to accelerate hiring and training for pilots and to schedule jet maintenance checks. Doing so should enable the carrier to haul more people when travel peaks during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, Compton said.

“You do that by better timing of your maintenance visits so you ensure the aircraft are available for the summer,” he said. “You do the work during the winter.”

The adjustment isn’t necessarily easy, Compton said, noting that training facilities were already strained by the large numbers of pilots shifting to different aircraft types after pre-merger United and Continental pilots were melded into a single workforce at United Continental Holdings Inc. under a single contract in 2013.

United has three ways to adjust its capacity without disrupting its schedule, Compton said. The carrier can add or reduce the frequency with which it flies to a city, shift aircraft size or fly to destinations such as Rome only during peak months for tourism.

Dulles Cuts

Bob Mann, an aviation consultant and former American Airlines executive, sees more airlines following United’s lead with capacity cuts. Many international routes haven’t performed well lately, and airlines look ready to “cut their losses” by pulling seats during the traditionally slow winter season, he said.

Some analysts, including Imperial Capital LLC analyst Bob McAdoo, have called for United to cut capacity at Dulles, which faces tough competition from American Airlines’ hub at Reagan National Airport and is smaller than other Northeastern hubs.

–With assistance from Michael Sasso in Atlanta.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Johnsson in Chicago at jjohnsson@bloomberg.net. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ed Dufner at edufner@bloomberg.net. 

Photo Credit: A United crew de-icing a plane at Chicago-O'Hare airport. Cliff / Flickr