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United Splits Its Widebody Fleet Order Between Boeing and Airbus

I know I said I'd have part two of the United vs Mesa saga today, but I've pushed that until tomorrow so we can talk about United's big aircraft order today. ------------ Yesterday, United (UAUA) did something that hasn't happened in over a decade. The airline actually ordered new airplanes. While pilots are likely breathing a small sigh of relief that United isn't trying to completely farm them out, there are still some questions to be answered. The biggest one is this - why are they splitting the order between Boeing (BA) and Airbus? The answer? Blame the manufacturers.

I break down the United order details further on Cranky Flier today, but here I want to focus on the decision to order the A350-900 and the 787-8 from two seemingly competitive aircraft families. It's easy to speculate that this is some sort of game where United is trying to squeeze the most out of each manufacturer, but I don't think that's what we're seeing here. What we're seeing is the aircraft manufacturers failing to provide an adequate solution to this customer.

United says that the 787-8 will replace the international 767-300 fleet while the A350-900 will replace the 747-400 fleet. Why not stick with the 787 family for the whole thing? Or the A350 family? Because the manufacturers don't build the right planes for that purpose.

United is a big fan of fewer seats on airplanes (as you've undoubtedly seen if you've been on the ever-growing fleet of regionals). They like the size of the 767, but they wanted an airplane that could carry those passengers further and more efficiently. The 787-8 is perfect for that as it's almost an exact match in size at about 210 seats in an average three cabin configuration (just a couple seats less than the 767-300). What does Airbus offer? Nothing with "new" technology. The A350-800 is the smallest A350 and it seats 270. So United couldn't have gone with Airbus.

For the 747-400 replacement, it seems clear to me that United doesn't like all those uncomfortable coach seats in the back, so they've opted for a plane that's 100 seats smaller in a standard three cabin configuration than the 747 so they can squeeze the cheap seats out of the plane. What does Boeing offer? Not a 787. The largest 787 is about the same size as the smallest A350, and that's not big enough.

Why doesn't Boeing go bigger? Well, they don't want to cannibalize the 777, but this order seems like a clear sign to me that they're going to need to do just that. This is a big problem for Boeing, and it may see them lose out to Airbus for older 777-200 replacements if they don't get moving on a 787 of the same size.

This order does bring up some questions for United. What will they do with the 777 fleet? It seems clear that either the 787 or A350 fleet will eventually replace the 777. In the release, United says:

Furthermore, our international fleet replacement program will reduce our fleet complexity, and associated operating costs, by eliminating one fleet type as we transition from three widebody aircraft types (Boeing 747, 777, and 767) to two (Airbus A350 and Boeing 787).
Both the 787-9 and the A350-800 can fill that gap by shedding a few seats, something that United might be interested in since they're shrinking the 747 replacement as well. That will be an interesting fight when the time comes.

Even more interesting is the thought of what will replace the 14 domestic 767-300s and the 757 fleet. I imagine that those will be replaced with either 737s or A320 family aircraft, but neither of those will perform the exact missions of the current fleet. So that might take some creativity. We'll find out about that one next year.

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