We have asked how the common S34F mutation in the splicing factor U2AF1 regulates alternative splicing in lung cancer, and why wild-type U2AF1 is retained in cancers with this mutation. A human lung epithelial cell line was genetically modified so that U2AF1S34F is expressed from one of the two endogenous U2AF1 loci. By altering levels of mutant or wild-type U2AF1 in this cell line and by analyzing published data on human lung adenocarcinomas, we show that S34F-associated changes in alternative splicing are proportional to the ratio of S34F:wild-type gene products and not to absolute levels of either the mutant or wild-type factor. Preferential recognition of specific 3' splice sites in S34F-expressing cells is largely explained by differential in vitro RNA-binding affinities of mutant versus wild-type U2AF1 for those same 3' splice sites. Finally, we show that lung adenocarcinoma cell lines are independent on mutant U2AF1 for growth in vitro or in vivo. In contrast, wild-type U2AF1 is required for survival, regardless of whether cells carry the U2AF1S34F allele. Our results provide a mechanistic explanation of the magnitude of splicing changes observed in U2AF1-mutant cells, and explain why tumors harboring U2AF1 mutations always retain an expressed copy of the wild-type allele.