United Airlines has committed to flying more than 200 Boeing 737 Max aircraft with an add-on order for another 25 of the type.
The Chicago-based carrier unveiled an order for 25 more 737 Maxes due in 2023. That brings its outstanding firm commitments for the type to 188 aircraft, plus the 22 it flew at the end of 2020, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday. At the same time, United rejigged its existing orderbook to take 21 737 Maxes — all -9s — this year, 40 in 2022, and 54 in 2023 with the latter number including both the new and existing commitments. United did not disclose the variant for its latest order, though its current commitments include only the 737-9 and -10.
“[We’re] confident in our ability to navigate the recovery, regardless of the inevitable bumps and dips in the months ahead,” United commercial chief Andrew Nocella told staff in an internal staff communiqué viewed by Airline Weekly. “With a number of our aircraft nearing the end of their lifecycle and the growth opportunities that we know will exist in the Covid-19 recovery period, this agreement will help us to grow as demand returns and renew our fleet with more environmentally friendly, customer-pleasing aircraft.”
The deal is also a boost to Boeing. After the Chicago-based planemaker’s bread-and-butter 737 line was idled during the 20-plus-month global grounding of the Max, Boeing ramped up deliveries in December as it moved to clear its backlog and sell white tails to eager buyers. Alaska Airlines and Ryanair have both signed deals for more Maxes showing support for the program among existing operators.
United’s order is not the only good news for Boeing. On Friday, Australia became the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to re-certify the Max. Virgin Australia has 25 of the jets on order.
However, even as the Max outlook improves, other troubles are mounting for Boeing. Renewed quality issues on its 787 line has paused deliveries since the fall and prompted some to warn that the cost of necessary modification work could run into the billions of dollars. And the airframer has come under renewed — though some misplaced — scrutiny following a February 20 Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engine failure and subsequent cowling separation on a 777-200 flown by United.
United, for its part, appears poised to use its expanded Max orderbook to both replace older aircraft and grow. As Nocella indicated, the airline has a number of aircraft “nearing the end of their lifecycle” — a time that differs from airline-to-airline but is generally considered any aircraft older than 20 or 25 years. United has several fleets that fit this description, however, only two — its Boeing 757s and 767s — are repeatedly mentioned as being considered for retirement. The 737-9 and -10 can replace the carrier’s remaining 757s on domestic routes but not the older jet on longer transatlantic missions. United has 50 A321XLRs on order to replace those longer-haul 757s with the first due in 2024.
The carrier could also use the Maxes to replace some of the older Airbus A320s and Boeing 737-800s in its fleet, the oldest of which date to 1993 and 1998, respectively. Replacing these smaller jets with the Max would allow for efficient growth by adding seats to existing flights at a lower overall trip cost.
United re-introduced the 737-9 on flights from its Denver and Houston Bush Intercontinental hubs on February 11. The jets are due to fly 38 routes in March, according to Cirium schedules.
Alaska debuted its first 737-9 on flights between Seattle and both Los Angeles and San Diego on Monday. And Southwest Airlines is set to resume Max flights on March 11. The fourth U.S. operator, American Airlines, resumed Max flights on December 29.
The 737 Max’s superior economics, including 15 percent better fuel efficiency than “current-generation aircraft,” will also help meet the airline’s emissions goals, said Nocella. United aims to go carbon neutral by 2050 and, in addition to ordering more fuel efficient aircraft, is investing in new partnerships to achieve this goal, including new electric vertical takeoff and landing — eVTOL — helicopter-like aircraft and bus connections on the ground that could help take cars off the road.