There have been reports this week that United Airlines is considering a purchase of 10 Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. And the news is interesting in many ways. The company has an open order for 35 of the A350-1000s, another large, long-haul aircraft with deliveries expected starting in 2018 and seems to mostly be holding steady on capacity these days. So why 10 large 777s?
For starters, the company has continued to struggle with reliability on the 747-400 fleet. It is marginally better than in late 2013 when United had to pull the planes out of Chicago and only operate them from San Francisco (and the LA-Sydney flight) in order to keep the fleet moving. The 744s returned to Chicago in mid-2014 but dispatch reliability has remained an issue. And even as the company completes the interior retrofit adding WiFi, streaming wireless IFE and in-seat power there are rumors that the aircraft are experiencing higher than normal corrosion rates first thought to be reported and addressed in the 90s but currently still of concern on some of the aircraft.
In other words, even with the recent spend on the 744s it might make sense for the company to retire the type if it can maintain capacity and improve operational reliability and costs.
So, what about the Airbus A350s on order? Well, they aren’t due to show up for a few years yet and there’s a decent chance United can negotiate a bargain with Boeing as the airframer works to keep the 777 line running at peak levels in advance of the 777X switchover planned for later in the decade. Also, United’s A350 order is of the larger –1000 variant which is not yet flying so there is still a chance that the delivery timeline could slip on those planes.
And then there’s the capacity question. United’s 744s currently fly with 357 seats on board. The 777-300ER generally has fewer seats than than in a 3-cabin layout. AA holds 310 and that’s with the tight squeeze 3-4-3 in the back; Etihad is 330 in a 3-cabin layout, also with 3-4-3. Qatar Airways is at 335 seats with 3-3-3 in the back but that is a 2-cabin configuration today, something United has been trending towards with recent product announcements and aircraft deliveries. Swapping the 744s on a 1-to-1 basis with new 77Ws would likely result in a small decrease of capacity per aircraft. And the company has been working hard to hold overall ASM numbers steady as of late. Of course, United could also choose the 3-4-3 option on the new 77W deliveries and increase the total number of seats on board versus the 744s, at least in a 2-cabin config.
As a customer I also have to wonder about the cabin layout and overall comfort. If UA goes 3-4-3 on these planes, a move which I consider very likely, they’ll join several other carriers in offering a product which I’m inclined to avoid travel on where possible. I care a bit less about whether there is a first class cabin on board though it will be interesting to see if the rumored new premium product makes a debut on these or remains rumored.
So Boeing is theoretically desperate to get a few more 77W orders. United is similarly desperate to get a few more reliable planes into the fleet with similar range and capacity to the 744s. And maybe, down the line, as the TATL 752s start to retire and other wide-body aircraft (i.e. 763s) are slid down in to those routes there is a need to backfill further with the A350-1000s. Or the company figures something else out. But the challenges with the 744 fleet remain such that it seems prudent to fix the issue if such can be done affordably.
Of course, there is also the part where buying 10 new planes now which are end-of-life raises some sub-fleet issues over the long term, though I suppose the second-hand market will be heating up as the 777X come on line so future acquisitions could be had for rather less cash.
Also worth noting that a United rep confirmed to FlightGlobal that these would likely be changes on the existing wide-body order book rather than additional aircraft. I would not be surprised to see the remaining 787-8 orders converted and the -9s kept if such a move happens. FlightGlobal says that United still has 10 options for the -8 type, a model it doesn’t seem to really want any more of, while the WSJ is reporting that the move would come from converting 787-9 orders.
Just some thoughts…
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