It is no secret that United Airlines is going to be retiring many of their 757-200 aircraft. The planes from the legacy United fleet are mostly older, at 20+ years now, and the airline is looking to replace them with newer 737 planes. The newer aircraft are more fuel efficient for most of the trips the planes operate in the domestic market. And while United had previously indicated some retirements of the planes, including a sale of 30 to FedEx, the most recent quarterly earnings call included the announcement that all of the domestic config planes will be retired by the end of 2015.
The planes are set to be replaced by new 737-900ERs but the numbers don’t quite add up. More than 70 planes are to be retired while only 48 new deliveries are scheduled in the same time period. There are other deliveries expected in that window – more 787s and 70 passenger regional jets – but the lack of parity in the 737/757 swap does raise some interesting questions. The company is opening up 737 pilot positions in the coming months which will help offset the pilot shift issues but there will still potentially be a shortage of seats for the pilots to work out of as the shift happens.
The other challenge will be for passengers. With fewer planes and fewer larger domestic planes the end result would seem to be a capacity drop effected via fewer routes, frequencies or both in mainline service. And while the 70-seat regional jets can handle some of those routes, allowing the 737s currently on them to cover for the 757s being retired that doesn’t necessarily present the most efficient solution, especially at airports like Newark where there are limits on the number of operations the airline can fly daily.
At the same time, the numbers don’t lie (too often) and the change is all about saving money. At least one bit of research puts the operating costs of the 737-900 at $1300/hour less than the 757-200. Figure an average of 12 hours flying daily on those planes (just a guess, but it should be pretty close based on the averages compiled here) and the potential savings are a bit crazy. Take 70 planes and multiply by 12 hours a day and $1300/hour and the potential savings is more than a million dollars a day, nearly $400 million annually. Another number suggested was $2mm per plane annually which is “only” $100mm per year by the time the full swap happens. Either way, that’s a lot of cash saved.
There are still some markets United has the 757-200s on which cannot be served by 737s, mostly in transatlantic operations. Those planes are not being retired any time soon. But for the rest of the 757s it is a quick move to stand down and replace the planes.
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