Should United Airlines reconsider its fleet plans?

Hello All,

In this blog post we will discuss United Airlines’ fleet plans. The Chicago based airline fleet is interesting in many aspects. In spite of being the third largest widebody passenger operator after Emirates and IAG it exclusively operates Boeing twin aisle aircraft for now. It is also the largest airline in the world not to have placed an A320neo family order. Lastly its Boeing 757 and 767 fleets are aging fast so the carrier needs to find suitable replacements. We will outline United’s current fleet plans and discuss whether the carrier should consider changes.

According to planespotters.net below is the current United fleet:

Type Count On Order Family Type
A319 72 34 A320 Medium Haul
A320 99 4 A320 Medium Haul
737-700 40 B737 Medium Haul
737-800 141 B737 Medium Haul
737-900ER 148 B737 Medium Haul
737-9 14 71 B737 Medium Haul
737-10 100 B737 Medium Haul
757-200 56 757-767 Midsize
757-300 21 757-767 Midsize
767-300ER 37 1 757-767 Midsize
767-400ER 16 0 757-767 Midsize
777-200 19 0 B777 Long Haul
777-200ER 55 0 B777 Long Haul
777-300ER 18 4 B777 Long Haul
787-8 12 0 B787 Long Haul
787-9 25 13 B787 Long Haul
787-10 9 5 B787 Long Haul
A350-900 0 45 A350 Long Haul
Total 782 277

The airline currently operates 16 types within 5 families: Airbus A320, Boeing 737, Boeing 757 and 767, Boeing 777 and Boeing 787. We classify aircraft as either medium haul, midsize or long haul:

Aircraft Type In Fleet On Order Latest Generation
Medium Haul 514 209 171
Midsize 130 1
Long Haul 138 67 63
Total 782 277 234

We don’t consider the A319, A320, 767-300ER and 777-300ER as latest generation aircraft

Under the current strategy the A350-900 and various 787 variants will replace aging 777-200s, 777-200ERs and some 767-300ERs. The 737-9 will replace older narrowbody aircraft and the 737-10 the 757 on most domestic routes.

While the fleet strategy addresses some of the carrier’s replacement needs it isn’t comprehensive. United did not order any latest generation small narrowbody aircraft. The second hand order for 34 A319 and 4 A320 effectively kicks the can down the road in the 150 and below seat segment. American Airlines is in a similar situation while Delta Air Lines ordered and already operates the A220.

However the biggest problem for United is the 757 and 767 replacement. The carrier did not order any aircraft of similar size to replace the 757 on longer than transcontinental domestic and transatlantic missions. The full 767 replacement isn’t finalized either. Since both aircraft fleets are more than 21 years old the issue is becoming more pressing.

Now that we outlined United Airlines’ plans and its deficiencies, what should the Chicago based carrier do? We will look at the long haul, midsize and medium haul segments separately.

Long Haul

It is fair to say that historically the carrier has been more Boeing focused. Both companies are headquartered in Chicago. Continental Airlines also had exclusivity agreements with Boeing to purchase airplanes in the past. The order for 45 A350-900 changes that for the all Boeing widebody operator.

Airbus had to fight hard for that order. It was originally an order for 35 A350-1000 to replace the 747-400. However the carrier kept postponing deliveries, opting instead to order the 777-300ER after very aggressive pricing from Boeing. This order was converted to the A350-900, with deliveries from 2022 to replace the aging 777-200(ER) fleet.

United is currently the second largest 787 operator after All Nippon Airways. The airline needs the A350-900 because the 787-10 does not have anywhere near the 777-200ER’s range (6400 vs 7000 nautical miles nominal range). However following the Air New Zealand order for 8 787-10 the latter received a maximum takeoff weight hike. While nothing was officially released it is rumored to represent an hour’s worth of extra flying. This would bring the 787-10 nominal range up to 6800 nm. The Chicago based carrier could effectively operate flights up to 6200 nm with the 787-10 after the MTOW hike (and even longer if it opts for lower density cabins).

Below is a list of United’s routes with a great circle distance of 6200 nm or more:

Hub Destination Distance (nm) Aircraft Family
EWR DEL 6364 B777
EWR BOM 6784 B777
EWR PVG 6416 B777
EWR HKG 7009 B777
IAH SYD 7470 B787
ORD HKG 6773 B777
LAX SYD 6507 B787
LAX MEL 6883 B787
SFO TLV 6449 B777
SFO SYD 6445 B787
SFO SIN 7340 B787
SFO DEL 6697 B787
SFO MEL 6826 B787

Only six flights longer than 6200 nm are currently operated by 777 family aircraft (either the -200ER or -300ER). Like American Airlines, should United cancel its A350-900 order?

This blog believes the Chicago based carrier should not cancel its A350-900 order for several reasons.

United is the third largest passenger widebody operator in the world. Therefore it has the scale to operate twin aisle aircraft from both manufacturer without negatively affecting fleet commonality. The airline is better off keeping both manufacturer on their toes rather than exclusively rely on one.

United’s long haul network and strategy is fundamentally different from American. The carrier has historically had a strong presence in the three largest international markets in the USA: New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The recent 777-300ER order shows that the airline needs large aircraft. While American is present in both New York and Lost Angeles, the carrier has materially reduced its presence in the former and is a smaller actor in the Transpacific market.

Lastly ordering A350 family aircraft gives more flexibility. The carrier can up-gauge ultra long haul flights to the A350-900 from the 787-9 if demand justifies it. Down the line the A350-1000 can replace the 777-300ER if market conditions still justify the usage of similarly sized aircraft.

Midsize

It is fair to say that United’s midsize airplane strategy is debatable. The longest flights the 737-10 can effectively operate are Transcontinental. Being the latest 737 stretch, its field performance is even worse than the 737-9. Lastly United is the carrier among the big 3 with the most routes operated at the limit of the 757 range. Those routes are not within the 737-10’s range. Below is the list:

Hub Destination Distance (nm)
EWR GLA 2805
EWR EDI 2839
EWR SNN 2690
EWR MAN 2914
EWR LIS 2941
EWR OPO 2902
EWR LIM 3155
EWR ANC 2928
IAD DUB 2958
IAD EDI 3021
IAD LIS 3121
ORD EDI 3225
ORD DUB 3192
DEN KOA 2893
DEN OGG 2870
DEN LIH 2967

United already operates A320 family aircraft. As pointed out earlier is the largest airline in the world that did not order A320neo family aircraft. The Chicago based carrier should seriously consider ordering the A321neo and A321 XLR, especially if the latter is launched, regardless of Boeing’s ultimate decision on the New Midsize Airplane. The A321 XLR would allow United to launch more seasonal flights to Europe as well as keep more frequencies during winter months. It would be a suitable aircraft to grow its Washington Dulles hub. Narrowbody flights from Houston to Hawaii would also become possible.

Just like United exercised its option to upgrade its 737 MAX order to the -10 variant, it has the option to downgrade it. The A321 XLR would also allow United to hedge its bets regarding the NMA. If the latter’s entry into service is delayed it will be extremely expensive for the carrier to maintain its aging 757 and 767 in service (the current fleet would be 27 year average age in 2025). The NMA could replace the 767 on all missions to Europe from the US East Coast, as well as numerous flights to Latin America. If the NMA isn’t launched the 787-8 could replace the 767 on routes not within the range of the A321 XLR.

Medium Haul

While the 737-10’s field performance isn’t great, smaller 737 MAX variants are better on that front. In spite of the recent grounding the 737 MAX remains a competitive medium sized narrowbody aircraft. As discussed before the airline could consider converting the order for the -10 to smaller variants if it elects to order the A321neo and A321 XLR.

The biggest sticking point in United’s medium haul fleet strategy is the below 150 seat segment. Its President, Scott Kirby, described the segment’s economics as challenging. For now the airline is kicking the can down the road, with an order for 34 second hand A319s. The airline could order the 737-7 or A319neo but their economics aren’t great. The two viable latest generation aircraft dedicated to that segment are the Airbus A220 and Embraer E2. It remains to be seen whether the carrier sees a large enough opportunity in that segment to justify introducing a new family type.

To summarize United Airlines’ widebody strategy is in a good place. The A350 is an excellent aircraft for the carrier’s hubs in markets with more international traffic than American and Delta. It is also healthier not to exclusively rely on Boeing for the widebody fleet. The midsize strategy is more questionable. Ordering the 737-10 was perhaps a mistake when one operates so many routes at the limit of the 757 range. With the expected launch of the A321 XLR the Chicago based carrier should seriously consider ordering A321neo family aircraft to replace its aging 757 fleet, and down-gauge the 737-10 to smaller MAX variants. Regarding the medium haul fleet the 737 MAX remains a solid backbone. The remaining open question is whether the below 150 seat segment justifies ordering a dedicated type like the A220, or is better served by the slow selling 737-7. In my opinion United should make sure it places order from Airbus and Boeing for both narrowbody and widebody aircraft.

Credit: United Airlines

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4 thoughts on “Should United Airlines reconsider its fleet plans?

  1. In comparison to AA and Delta, United’s fleet strategy seems to be all over the place. The diversity of fleet and size is rather astounding. In my view, United could adopted the same strategy as AA and streamlined their narrowbody fleet into 3 types, A220-300, B737max8 and A321neo/XLR. That should cover all A319/A320, B737-700/800/900ER & B757-200 replacement, reducing the fleet diversity by half.
    For the wide body segment, I see the proposed NMA, B787-8, A350-900 and B777-9 to be the ideal combination for United. However considering that the B787-9 & -10 are already in the united’s fleet, I see a likelihood that the A350 order will be deferred further and ultimately cancelled as boeing are looking at performance improvement on both variants. It is unlikely that united will replace their B777-300ER with the A350-1000 as their current B777 seats close to 400 pax which is beyond the capacity of the A350-1000.

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    1. Hello Vince! Thanks for participating in the discussions.

      I agree that United’s current fleet is quite complex. It is partially a legacy of the merger with Continental.

      Your narrowbody plan looks very reasonable. On the widebody front given they already are a large 787 operator they will have to consider the aircraft the backbone. Not the best but does the job.
      This with the NMA covers all medium and long haul flights up to 10-11 hours, lower and higher density routes.

      This leaves us with the larger capacity, long range aircraft. The A350-1000 was originally scheduled to be the 747-400 replacement. However Boeing came with a very aggressive pricing for 777-300ER to fill the production line until the 777x. Fuel prices were moderating at the time and they could enter service faster than the A350-1000. The order was then converted into a 777-200er. I agree that United might ultimately postpone and cancel the order. However I think it would be a mistake.

      I have doubts united (or any big 3 legacy carrrier) is interested in the 777x. The aircraft is too large for their latest long haul business model. Instead of up-gauging to a very large aircraft on a route they would rather add a frequency of operate a new flight from another hub. Between us the fact no US airline was a launch customer for the 777x should have alarmed boeing (this is not for lack of trying). The 777x looked great at the time with the big 3 middle eastern carriers cannot waiting to get them. Fast forward 6 years and etihad effectively cancelled the order, emirates wants to reduce and postpone.

      The A350-1000 is indeed slightly smaller than the 777-300er but i think it is ok for United, especially after the mtow hike of the former you pointed out. If anything united might even prefer if Boeing hikes the 787-10 mtow so much it become between the A350-900 and -1000 in payload-range (that would mean a 787 max effectively). US airlines have massively down-gauged aircraft size on long haul routes.

      Having said that i still think united would be better served by sourcing widebody from both Airbus and Boeing.

      Always enjoyable to chat with you. Best!

      Like

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