United/Continental Merger Has Mysteriously Moved Cities Closer Together

There are a lot of things that happen when airlines merge — planes get repainted, airport gates get redecorated, frequent flier programs get combined. But there’s an interesting phenomenon occurring in the wake of the union between United and Continental — cities are suddenly no longer as far apart as they used to be.

Consumerist reader Erik noticed that his flights between Denver and Los Angeles are now listed as three miles shorter than they had been previously, and he’s not the only one who has noticed the issue.

Over at this thread on the FlyerTalk.com forum, there is a lot of chatter about airports that are now no longer as far apart as they were before the two airlines finalized their merger on March 3.

For example, the trip between San Francisco and Houston is now listed as four miles shorter than it had been. New York’s JFK airport is now nine miles closer to Los Angeles International. The gap between Newark International and Hong Kong International is now 14 miles less. And there are many, many more examples cited by travelers.

Some, if not all, of these differences may appear to be negligible, but considering the sheer number of people that fly the nation’s largest airline every day, the number of frequent flier miles that are not being accrued works in United’s favor. Passengers pay the same price for a ticket while reaping slightly less reward.

We’ve written to United to see if anyone has an explanation or comment on the shorter listed distances, and we’ll update if we hear anything back from the airline.


Edit Your Comment

  1. az123 says:

    Question that this does not seem to answer, is this a difference between the miles United had the flights listed for vs. what Continental did? or are we talking that they shrunk regardless? The story way the story is written somewhat implies that this is general however the clarification on this point may show that Consumerist actually was doing a good job in researching what they were writing.

  2. El_Fez says:

    Um, duh – continental drift! Isn’t that obvious?

    • timwoj says:

      I see what you did there…

    • Blueskylaw says:

      Actually, as the Earth flies through space, it generates so much heat from friction, rotating between sun and dark, the change in axis of rotation, and how many people ate at McDonalds that morning that the tectonic plates expand and contract at an enormous rate. Just look at the expansion and contraction that occurs with an SR-71 Blackbird aircraft during flight.

      At operational altitude and speed friction between the air and airframe generates so much heat that the SR-71 will expand by as much as 11 inches.

      • daynight says:

        Is this a candidate for the mile high club?

      • The Lone Gunman says:

        Isn’t that expansion a naturally-occurring instance due to the sighting of another Blackbird?

        • Blueskylaw says:

          Actually, I pulled all of those facts out of my as*, all except for
          the Blackbird of course. Perhaps I should be a political speechwriter?

    • CTrees says:

      The planes are flying lower, now. Less distance travelled.

    • madfrog says:

      If people would just use the Tardis, there would be no problem. Distances in time travel are a mute point, and the Doctor is cool to hang out with.

  3. TuxthePenguin says:

    So I guess the first, obvious, question would be whether the new measurements are closer to reality than the previous ones?

  4. Cat says:

    It’s a small world, after all.

  5. denros says:

    Cities had to be relocated to account for cosmic inflation and tectonic plate movement. Happens every billion years or so, nothing to see here.

  6. farcedude2 says:

    I wonder, how is the distance between airports computed? Is it direct flat earth distance? Or is it flown distance (averaged over a number of flights)? Or (expanding from the last) is it the ‘ideal’ path through the various airlanes and approaches from one airport to another – could the merger of the two have freed up some sort of congestion, or allowed them to plan more flights in the same airspace?

    (Note – I’m not saying they’re automatically innocent, there are just a whole bunch of ways a change like this could have happened).

    • Doubting thomas says:

      I had the same question. It might make a whole 3 miles but leaving from a gate/runway on the opposite side of the airfield might account for part as well.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      Such small differences can likely be accounted for by calculating distance using different geographic projections. We run into similar issues all the time on large projects because different agencies, contractors, and clients use different projections and datums. Airlines tend to favor Mercator projections, which are great for angles but have issues with precise distances.

  7. Blueskylaw says:

    “There are a lot of things that happen when airlines merge ‚Äî planes get repainted, airport gates get redecorated, frequent flier programs get combined.”

    You also forgot to include:

    1). Executive salaries and bonuses go up due to successful merger
    2). Number of planes in service gets reduced
    3). Prices go up due to reduced competition…err, I meant due to current economic conditions

  8. chizu says:

    Oh huh, the flight between EWR to HKG did shrink for 14 miles. The last time I flew, we actually had flown 8,888 miles in total. But I was only credited for 8.060 miles… In my experience with this route — you always fly over the 8,060 rather than under… So yeah, they really cheat you out on those miles…

    Speaking of which, I had to change my parents’ flight last Saturday when they were doing a system switch over. I’m not sure why, but it was quite a nightmare. At first, it displayed one price for me, then error kept occurring and I wasn’t able to make the changes. I went back and tried it again — the price adjusted and it was more expensive to make the changes.

    Anyway, due to the merge, EWR had also moved things around and I didn’t realise it. I checked the flight status on flightstats.com — and it listed the arrival terminal as Terminal B. And when I flew with CO (just last December), I came out of Terminal B too. I waited and waited at Terminal B yesterday until the Super Nice Information Desk Staff at Terminal C (sorry, I didn’t ask for your name) called me on my mobile phone to let me know that my parents were out in Terminal C. Apparently EWR had moved ALL United flights (departure and international arrivals) into Terminal C.

    During this transition, my parents bought their tickets last Thursday — and by Saturday, they had brand new confirmation number. Luckily the system updated itself, otherwise, I’d have never been able to find their flight information.

    I guess the upside of having them merged is that it opened up a lot more options (or connecting flights) to fly around… But there are still plenty of downsides… (Not to mention the food is still godawful.)

  9. Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

    The difference in distances can likely be explained by different map projections being used.

    • M-D says:

      Also, there are some instances where UA and CO were basing their mileage calculations off of different reference points. I believe CO was still basing mileage to DEN on the location of Stapleton Airport, not the current Denver International, whereas UA was using the current DIA location.

      • j2.718ff says:

        I hope their flight plans have been updated.
        Though, on second thought, Stapleton is a more convenient location – if my next flight landed there, I’d have a much shorter commute home.

  10. SBR249 says:

    Maybe one airline flies a shorter route than the other and they just averaged or took the shorter one of the two. Planes don’t fly direct lines between airports when drawn on a flat map, the most economical route are usually some variation of the great circle route. That’s why flights to East Asia from the West Coast and Midwest follow the northern Pacific Rim instead of straight shot over the Pacific.

  11. j2.718ff says:

    Now that the distances are shorter, do the flights take less time?

    • There's room to move as a fry cook says:

      Woo hoo! Fares will go down!.

    • Anathema777 says:

      With a distance of 3 miles (or even 14 miles), the flight would be only negligibly shorter. Planes tend to fly at about 500+ miles per hour, so travelling 3 miles less is going to make very little difference. And flight times are already pretty variable with different wind factors, so I don’t think you’d notice a difference.

  12. Anathema777 says:

    Did the airlines have different routes/airspaces for their flights? If they did, they’re likely keeping the most efficient ones from either airline.

    • youbastid says:

      Flight paths vary every day. Any given flight may take a very different path than the same one yesterday due to a number of circumstances like weather, the number of other planes on similar routes, etc. That’s why this is BS – considering the miles are shorter overall it’s just a boon to the airline (though it won’t affect the individual consumer much).

  13. Kate says:

    Flights aren’t a straight shot from one city to another. How long the flight is, is not the same thing as how far apart the cities are.

    • t325 says:

      FF miles are based on the distance between two cities, not the actual mileage flown.

      If you’re circling in the air for an hour over your destination waiting for a storm to pass before landing, you’re not credited with those miles flown.

  14. teamplur says:

    I always thought reward “miles” were just a misnomer and were just awarded based on amount spent on the tickets. I would never expect them to be based on the actual miles flown. I just set up a frequent flier account last year. My wife flew round trip from PA to CA. It’s a 2500 mile drive. So that’s 5000 miles. I’m pretty damn sure I did not get 5000 reward miles from that.

  15. aen says:

    What if there was a reward program that rewarded you for the time that you spent on a plane (say, after the cabin door closes)? This would further motivate on-time departures/arrivals for the airline and would reward the customer for delays. Obviously, the rewards system would need to sync up with flight logs and that might be quite a bother. Though I would buy that card.

  16. tinyhands says:

    This is easily explained by the fact that everything that was once great about Continental Airlines has now been ruined by United. They can’t even get the fountain in the plaza outside their downtown Houston skyscraper to work. It’s been boarded-up for going on 2 years now.

    • crazydavythe1st says:

      except Continental was the one based out of Houston. United was/is based out of Chicago.

      • tinyhands says:

        May 3, 2010 – Continental announces “merger” with United Airlines.
        2 months shy of 2 years is why I wrote “going on 2 years now.”
        Does correlation equal causation? You’re free to judge differently, but I conclude that in this case it does.

  17. Geekybiker says:

    Maybe they changed from actual route to a great circle calc?

  18. dougp26364 says:

    So all this technology really is making the world smaller.

  19. madfrog says:

    See, the Mayans are right. The world is getting smaller, and on Dec 21, it will just fall in on itself!

  20. Daddy-o says:

    It’s the liberal media. It’s always the liberal media.

  21. Difdi says:

    I blame the langoliers.

  22. rumpledstiltskin says:

    remember, don’t necessarily attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.