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United Eyes Airbus and Boeing Jets for First Widebody Order in 4 Years

Edward Russell

August 17th, 2022

United Airlines is in the market for new Airbus or Boeing widebody aircraft to update its large and aging fleet of twin-aisle planes, Airline Weekly has learned.

While the size and timing of a potential order are unknown, United executives told pilots in a town hall earlier in August that they are “looking at widebody requirements and opportunities now and may have recommendations later this year.” A deal could include replacements for United’s Boeing 767 and older 777 fleets, they noted.

The Chicago-based carrier is considering both the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 for a potential order, Airline Weekly understands. United has firm orders for 45 A350-900s with deliveries from 2027, and eight 787-10s due this year and next.

A spokesperson for United declined to comment on the potential widebody order.

Any deal would come on the heels of Boeing resuming 787 deliveries earlier in August after a more than year-long hiatus due to production quality issues. And a year-and-a-half after United placed a massive 270 aircraft order for Airbus A321neo and Boeing 737 Max planes.

Widebody aircraft, the mainstay of long, intercontinental routes, were largely grounded during the pandemic when countries imposed strict Covid-19 border restrictions. As travel resumed, airlines brought back narrowbody planes first and, in a rush to capture the expected rebound in demand and to replace aging jets, have ordered hundreds of new Airbus and Boeing models. The race to add more narrowbodies appears to be easing with executives at both Airbus and Boeing saying in July that they are seeing increased interest from airlines in new widebody aircraft.

In the U.S., United is arguably the most in need of new twin-aisle jets. The airline did not retire any older models during the pandemic as American Airlines and Delta Air Lines did, and — with only eight widebodies due between now and 2027 — lacks the near-term orderbook of its competitors. American had 43 787s on order at the end of June, and Delta 41 A330neos and A350s; both airlines expect many of these planes in the next five years.

The average age of United’s twin-aisle fleet is 15.8 years, compared to 12.7 years at American and 16.4 years at Delta, according to Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer database.

United’s oldest widebodies are its 38 767-300ERs with an average age of 25.9 years, and its 19 777-200s with 24.5 years at the end of December, according to its latest fleet plan. The carrier’s 16 767-400ERs and 55 777-200ERs are also on average more than 20 years old.

The industry generally views the useful life of an aircraft to be 20 or 25 years, after which it is a good candidate for replacement and retirement. However, many airlines, including Delta and United, fly planes for as much as 30 years to save on the cost of buying new aircraft.

For the 767, United executives referred to it during the town hall as a “difficult airplane to replace,” in what appears to be a reference to its lack of a direct replacement. Both Airbus’ A330-800 and Boeing’s 787-8 have more range and capabilities than most airlines need to replace 767-300ERs, a mainstay of thinner transatlantic routes. Delta has yet to select a 767 replacement, while American opted for fleet commonality in its 2018 selection of the 787-8 as a replacement.

For the 777s, one factor that could influence United’s decision-making process is a promised performance upgrade to the 787-10. In the works since at least 2019, Boeing is planning to raise the maximum takeoff weight of the aircraft to as much as 572,000lb from the current 560,000lb, according to The Air Current. The additional takeoff weight would give the -10, the largest member of the 787 family that slots in size between the 777-200 and 777-300ER, a “major boost in endurance and productivity,” including either additional range or payload.

Additional range could make the 787-10 attractive to United for transpacific routes where many of its older 777s fly today. The aircraft, while good for shorter flights to Europe with high demand, can fly some routes to Asia today but could require weight restrictions to do so. United operates 13 -10s and expects deliveries of the remaining eight it has on order to resume in September with five due this year, and three in 2023.

“We are developing an increased maximum takeoff weight plan for the 787-9 and 787-10 that will add additional value for our customers with even greater efficiency, flexibility and capability,” a Boeing spokesperson said. “We are currently working to incorporate this offering into production and are communicating with our customers on timing.”

Airbus’ A350 already has the capability to fly routes to both Asia and Europe nonstop from the U.S. The planemaker made a performance upgrade to the A350-900 for Delta that allows the aircraft to fly nonstop to both Australia and South Africa without restrictions.

Story updated with a comment from Boeing.

Edward Russell

August 17th, 2022

Photo credit:  Flickr / Bill Abbott

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