Airbus claims that United is reportedly looking at the A380

Airbus CEO John Leahy is claiming that United Airlines is likely to order the A380 according to a story being carried by Aviation Week. Putting aside the fact that they have been advertising the story with some incredibly misleading headlines suggesting that the order is imminent, there are still issues with the story. Not the least of which is that Leahy actually states that the order is not imminent, though he absolutely seems convinced that the order is coming.

I’m not saying there is an order soon, but United understands that if it wants to have a major presence in Asia it needs the A380.

Airbus has already given up on Delta; the company has indicated it will pursue a policy of smaller widebody aircraft, so United is the only North American carrier left for the manufacturer to try to bring on board.

That leaves United as our target.

There are so many things that don’t add up here. For starters, United has committed to ordering the A350-900. Assuming that shows up eventually it will meet the needs of a multi-hub carrier on many routes that the 747-400s currently operate on. And United has more A350s on order than they have 747s currently in service. On top of that, United has a whole bunch of 787 Dreamliner orders in the pipeline, with initial deliveries currently expected at some point next year.

The A380 is great if you have a huge number of customers that need to be moved between two points – namely hubs – and from which you will then move them on smaller planes after the fact to their eventual destination. The numbers seem to work quite nicely for single-hub carriers where all the passengers can be funneled through a single point. But an operation that has nine hubs needs more flexibility in terms of routes and frequencies.

On top of that, the implication that it is needed to provide service in Asia doesn’t seem to match United’s current route map or indicated plans. There are scarce few intra-Asia routes and those are mostly tag-ons. Replacing those with non-stop 787 service from North American gateways seems much more likely to actually address the demand than flying larger aircraft to the Tokyo hub or Hong Kong.

Oh, and Leahy’s observation that the US airports are already too crowded, while accurate, ignores the fact that much of that congestion is slot hoarding by regional aircraft, flights that are easy for the carriers to scrap if they decide they want to fly bigger aircraft, and the entire premise of the demand Leahy is drawing falls apart pretty quickly.

Oh, and if they really do want a bigger plane don’t forget there’s that Boeing 747-8i out there that is desperate to rack up a few sales to keep the program alive.

The headline certainly got a lot of attention and got folks to read the story, but that doesn’t mean an order is coming any time soon.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I agree that the 747-81 would be a better choice, assuming that UA even has a need for a larger aircraft.

  2. Let’s face it… nobody “saw” AA ordering Airbus again anytime soon either. And yet, not only did they order from Airbus, Airbus ended up securing the lion’s share of the order.

    In my opinion it’s more a question of when, not if, UA orders the A380. They could use a handful for their Pacific routes, particularly as demand for air travel increases over the years. As air travel increases, the business case for the A380 just gets stronger. And let’s not forget the volatile fuel market.

    On another note…

    “but that doesn’t mean an order is coming any time soon.”

    In all fairness, nobody claimed such, not even Leahy who stated “I’m not saying there is an order soon” 🙂

    1. The AA/Airbus order is different in my mind because AA actually needed planes of that size and they chose to split the order between the two manufacturers. UA doesn’t really need planes of that size.

      The growth in air travel is hardly guaranteed to drive business to the A380. First, it is rarely consistent enough to demand much of anything in the 400+ passenger space, especially with the ability to operate from multiple hubs. Passengers will continue to favor frequency and flexibility over larger planes IMO.

      And, while Leahy admitted that the order wasn’t immediately forthcoming the headlines from the article tried to tell a much different story. They were incredibly misleading.

  3. I’m not sure it makes sense for UA to get A380s though I can’t blame Airbus for trying to stoke the fire. It’s always been hard to imagine the 380 really fitting into any U.S. carrier’s plans. But I’m no industry expert so who knows. I’m just looking forward to my first 380 ride in March on QF.

  4. If US gets AA, then maybe there might be an option there since US is primarily Airbus and an A380 might, might make sense in limited cases…

    But you’re right. I don’t see United going that way.

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