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I'm on UA101 tonight, the very long IAH-SYD nonstop operated by United. If we look at Flightaware's routing for the flight (verified by the seatback moving map display) it's clear that we departed IAH, flew over El Paso and into southern California, left US airspace just west of Los Angeles, and then proceeded on the "normal" transpacific routing to Sydney.

enter image description here

Source: flightaware.com

What I can't figure out is why we specifically took this routing: it certainly appears that the point was to avoid overflying Mexican airspace, but I can't figure out why. United and lots of other US airlines provide service to Mexico so it's not like the airspace is off limits or anything. According to gcmap.com the routing we took tonight adds about 300 miles (~40 minutes) to a route that is already VERY long, and the 787-9 that we're on has to be very nearly at MTOW anyway, so adding another 40 minutes of fuel is on the heaviest (i.e. most expensive) marginal part.

The economics of airline travel don't usually allow for things like this - burning a few thousand extra pounds of Jet-A doesn't make for good business. Now obviously there's some reason for this routing, but I can't figure out what it might be. I also looked at a few of the other routings for this same flight, and just a couple of days prior the flight did take a more direct routing over Mexico on the way out.

The winds aloft didn't look meaningfully different - Foreflight computed the times as we'd expect, the "longer" one was ~40 minutes more ETE.

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    $\begingroup$ Overflight fees might factor in $\endgroup$ – Steve Kuo Mar 1 '18 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ Looking at the current FlightAware history for UA101, it’s been avoiding Mexico since the departure on 26 Feb, but before that it’s been overflying Mexico routinely, so I don’t know what’s happened since the 26th. I doubt it’s weather-related, since Qantas 8 (which flies a relatively similar route from DFW–SYD) has been flying over Mexico recently. $\endgroup$ – bogardpd Mar 1 '18 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ Could it be an ETOPS thing? It has to be further north as it crosses the pacific? $\endgroup$ – Greg Mar 2 '18 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ It's too late now, but considering you posted this during your flight, but don't forget you can always ask a flight attendant the question, or ask them to ask the pilot. $\endgroup$ – BruceWayne Mar 2 '18 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne: the couple of times I’ve asked flight crews these questions the answer I’ve gotten (consistently but politely) is something along the lines of “We get the routing from operations or planning (or some other department) — we just punch it into the computer and fly it...” $\endgroup$ – ljwobker Mar 3 '18 at 18:50
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Though routing this far north seems to make the flight about 200 miles longer, flight duration doesn't exactly correlate to route length. For a flight this long, wind plays a large role.

Take a look at the image below of the current wind forecast from ADDS, with the two flight paths in blue. You can see if they took the southern route over Mexico they would be flying directly into a pretty strong headwind. But by going further north, they can fly in much lighter wind conditions.

ADDS wind forecast with paths

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  • $\begingroup$ So I completely agree with your logic - and the map you provided makes it graphically clear. But now I need to go and figure out why foreflight (which should have very current winds aloft data!) didn't compute any meaningfully different time enroute for the two routes I gave it (one direct, one IAH-ELP-LAX-SYD). Hmmmm. $\endgroup$ – ljwobker Mar 2 '18 at 5:33

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