United Shrinks Again, Orders 787 and A350 Aircraft

That post title doesn’t make much sense, does it? United couldn’t be ordering new planes and shrinking at the same time, right? Actually, that’s exactly what’s happening. United is ordering new planes, but they’re smaller planes to replace existing aircraft. It’s nice to finally see United order an airplane again, even if it does mean fewer seats for customers.

United announced that it has ordered 25 787s and 25 A350s for its widebody replacement plan. It also holds another 50 “purchase rights” for each of the aircraft, probably just putting down roots for when they figure out their next move.

My understanding is that the order is for the 787-8 and the A350-900 versions of the aircraft. The 25 787s will replace the 21-strong international 767 fleet while the 25 A350s will replace the 24-plane 747 fleet. No replacement for the 777s has been announced, but I imagine that all or part of those 100 purchase rights can be executed for that purpose when the time comes.

The 787-8 is a natural replacement for the 767-300. In a typical three cabin layout, the 767-300 holds 218 people. The 787-8 will hold 210 people, so it’s a very close match. I’m using typical three cabin layouts for comparison purposes because United is always less dense. The 767-300, for example, has 183 seats in United’s configuration, so my guess is that the 787 will look similar. There is no real loss of capacity here, but there is a gain in range.

Take a look at this map from the Great Circle Mapper (which just published its 100 millionth map, congrats!) that shows how far a 7,500nm range would you get you from Washington/Dulles:

7,500 mile range from Dulles

The dark outline is where the airplane can’t reach (and the splotchy dark areas are too far from the nearest airport using 180 minute ETOPS rules) assuming 7,500nm range which will hopefully be less than actual. Dulles-Tokyo? Sure. Dulles-Kuwait? Oh yeah. And West Coast-Asia as well. Perfect. These can handle a lot of the routes that require 777s for range purposes today but don’t have the demand to support them. This airplane is a natural fit for United

The A350 order, however, is not an exact replacement for the 747. The 747-400 seats 416 in a typical three cabin configuration (347 in United’s), but the A350-900 will seat 100 fewer people in a typical configuration with just a few hundred more miles in range. So this will be a big cut in capacity on those planes, and that’s probably a good thing from United’s perspective.

In United’s international fleet, the 747 is the ugly duckling. It has a lot more coach seats and an inferior coach product when compared to the 767 and 777. This is United effectively saying that it doesn’t want that many coach seats, so it’s hacking away in the back of the bus. When these start coming in, you can expect fewer cheap fares from United.

But why bother splitting the fleet? A very good question indeed, and one that I’m talking about over on BNET today. So when will you get to ride in one of these bad boys? Not for a long time.

Deliveries are scheduled between 2016 and 2019, but United has the right to defer built into their contracts. So it could be even later than that if they so choose. Of course, let’s just wait to see one of these planes even get in the air on a test flight. For the 787, that should be here in the next couple of weeks. Then it’s only a 6+ year wait before you see one in United colors.

[Updated 12/9 @ 1103a to show that the map was for flights from Dulles]


23 Responses to United Shrinks Again, Orders 787 and A350 Aircraft

  1. Zack Rules, Albany, NY says:

    Very interesting, I wonder if UA’s anti-GE stance played much of a role here in ruling out the 777-300ER (UA/GE were at odds after the Sioux City crash and UA hasn’t bought a GE engine since). Should be interesting to see their order for narrowbodies in the spring. The A321 seems to be logical replacement for most of the 757-200 duties except Hawaii. The 787-3 would be a good fit to replace those domestic 767-300ER’s and 6 domestic 777-200’s. Maybe they’ll just relegate those 777’s they’ll eventually replace to Hawaii duty.
    Funny how just about every major foreign carrier can profitably, operate large jets like the 747, 777-300ER and the A380 but not any American carrier.

  2. Zach says:

    Interesting stuff–thanks for the UA update. I apologize in advance for my dimwittedness, but I don’t quite understand that map you posted. The dark area that is unreachable by the 787–from where is that hypothetical 787 departing? O’Hare? Dulles? Or is that simply the overall range from US airports?

  3. David SFeastbay says:

    2016 is a long ways away in the aviation world. What kind of carrier will UA be by that time or will there even still be a UA at all.

  4. Zack Rules, Albany, NY says:

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    2016 is a long ways away in the aviation world. What kind of carrier will UA be by that time or will there even still be a UA at all.

    Totally agree. Personally, I think UA will be eaten by CO before too long.
    Cranky, what’s the max payload range of the 787-8 and A350-900? UA likes to fly it’s 777’s with a full load of cargo compared say American or Continental which don’t seem to care as much when using their 77E’s on ORD-DEL or EWR-HKG.

  5. A says:

    Excuse my ignorance regarding the differencese between the 787 & A350, but aren’t they direct competitors in size, range, etc.? Why would UA order two aircraft types if one could do everything? The only reason I can think of is they are playing the field to see who gets their next gen aircraft off the ground first and will likely dump the orders with the loser. Or possibly a move to take deliveries faster…but since neither aircraft has an operating certificate yet, I’d be more concerned about that.

    From what I’ve heard WN saves a lot of $$$ by having a common fleet, as well people like CO for having an all Boeing fleet? An airplane mechanic friend has told me there is huge expense in stocking parts and having people trained to work on both Airbus & Boeing equipment. Just seems foolish to add complexity and cost in these tight times.

  6. Oliver says:

    @A — the A350 is about 100 seats larger, AFAIK.

    UA already has a mixed fleet. So do many other (successful) carriers. I am by no means an expert in airlines and aircraft, but I would guess that using the right plane for a given mission is also important, not just that it’s made by the same manufacturer as some of your other planes.

  7. Jeff K says:

    Bit of a tangent – in regards to CO taking over UA, what do you think would happen to E+ ? And I hope they keep the domestic 777 as it’s the only way I can ride those in the U.S.

  8. CF says:

    Zack Rules, Albany, NY wrote:

    Very interesting, I wonder if UA’s anti-GE stance played much of a role here in ruling out the 777-300ER (UA/GE were at odds after the Sioux City crash and UA hasn’t bought a GE engine since).

    I really doubt it. United made it clear in the last couple of weeks that they considered the 777 “old technology” so they weren’t interested. I don’t think it had anything to do with GE.

    Zach wrote:

    The dark area that is unreachable by the 787–from where is that hypothetical 787 departing? O’Hare? Dulles?

    Oops, that was Dulles. Sorry about that. I’m fixing the text.

    Zack Rules, Albany, NY wrote:

    Cranky, what’s the max payload range of the 787-8 and A350-900?

    The A350-900 says 8,100nm while the 787-8 says 7,650 to 8,200nm. These things both have some serious legs.

    A wrote:

    Excuse my ignorance regarding the differencese between the 787 & A350, but aren’t they direct competitors in size, range, etc.?

    As Oliver noted, they actually are serving two very different markets. Read my BNET post for more – I dig into that today:
    http://industry.bnet.com/travel/10004323/united-splits-its-widebody-fleet-order-between-boeing-and-airbus/

    Jeff K wrote:

    Bit of a tangent – in regards to CO taking over UA, what do you think would happen to E+ ?

    Way too early to speculate on that one. United is happy that E+ makes them money, so I have to assume that Continental would do some serious analysis on that if they took them over.

  9. Allan says:

    United’s 747’s should have been retired earlier this decade. Waiting until 2016 is a bit much.

  10. Ron says:

    Cranky,

    On BNET you blame the manufacturers for not offering a full range of aircraft sizes from one manufacturer. Don’t you think this may be intentional? The A330 and 340 are somewhere between the 767 and 777, the A380 is larger than the 747, and the A350 will sit below the 747. Staggered competition might be better for the manufacturers — I believe the last time that two widebodies were directly equivalent in terms of size was the DC10 and L1011, and neither of these covered their development costs.

  11. CF says:

    Ron wrote:

    Don’t you think this may be intentional?

    I doubt it’s intentional in terms of competing with each other, but I think it’s certainly intentional in terms of competing with its other product lines. For example, Boeing doesn’t want to grow the 787 because it will hurt the 777 too much. Airbus doesn’t have that problem, because they won’t offer anything between the A350 and the A380.

  12. Bobber says:

    Allan wrote:

    United’s 747’s should have been retired earlier this decade. Waiting until 2016 is a bit much.

    But unlikely, given the mint they’ve spent on re-fitting the premium cabins on them.

    I do start to feel old when the 777 is described as old technology – I love that plane!

  13. Dan Hill says:

    United has a miserable long haul product and their solution is new planes; in 7 years! Talk about a sense of urgency in transforming their service.

  14. David SFeastbay says:

    Dan Hill wrote:

    United has a miserable long haul product and their solution is new planes; in 7 years! Talk about a sense of urgency in transforming their service.

    Maybe it’s the thought that counts. It can show employees and investors that they will be around that long to take delivery of the planes.
    But then again TWA had new Airbuses on long term order and we know what happen there.

  15. Keith says:

    Typical United, Egotistical and Arrogant. Buying two types of planes with similar performance, so in 5 years, they play ego Chicago politics and pit A and B in a bidding war with each other, (which IMO will create bad mojo..). UA is becoming less and less the powerful force they once were, but they dont even realize it yet. The brand sucks, they are doing business the way they did in the 80’s and they think it should still work in 2009. I used to work at UA and thank God they laid me off…. Jees, what a toxic culture they have. Good Riddance! Enjoy your imperial airline. Enjoy the ways of Pan Am!

    I also dont really buy the the direct replacement bit… The Airline landscape evolves continuously, so what would seem like a good direct replacement for the 767 today, will most likely not be the case 6-7 years from now.

  16. TS says:

    Two things. First, to Dan Hill. The new F&C cabins are a dramatic improvement today in long haul service.

    Second, I do think United could make changes to this order down the line to adjust capacity if needed. They could opt for some A350-10s for something a little closer to true 747 replacement. They could also add a VLA later if they felt the market required it. As far as the delivery dates, to some extent these dates are what is available for new aircraft. UA decided not to buy the current gen aircraft like the A330 and 773 so that they could get the next gen.

  17. Dwight Looi says:

    The comparison of the 787 to the A350 is inherently flawed.

    The baseline 787-8 is an ~230 seat airplane. The baseline A350, the -900, is an ~310 seat airplane.

    Before the stretched and chopped versions come into play, it is easy to see that the 787 is optimized for the 767/A330 market segment. The A350-900 on the other hand is basically a lightened 777-200 (310 seats) with a weight loss and range increase.

    The sales numbers are also similarly telling. The 787 snapped up basically all of the 767/A330 orders (840) relegating both the the annals of history. The A350 does not compete in the 210 to 250 seat market at all. That’s all Boeing.

    The A350WXB is basically getting 2/3rds of the 777 market share splitting the segment 505 (A350XWB) to 290 (B777) between 2006 & 2009. The new 777 orders are nearly all for the larger 380 seat -300s, Boeing is losing the 310 seat class battle to Airbus.

    Yes, there is the 787-9 and A350-800 at 270, and the 340 seat A350-1000 to muddle things at the margins. But, really, Airbus didn’t built a 787 challenger with the A350XWB, they built a 777 killer.

  18. Mark says:

    It seems the A350-900 offers little in terms of capacity and range compared to existing 777-200ERs. The 777-200ER already has a greater range than a 747-400. The A350 will be more fuel efficient, but if UA wants to retire 747s, they can do that today and replace them with 777s.

  19. CF says:

    Mark wrote:

    The 777-200ER already has a greater range than a 747-400.

    I don’t believe United’s 777s do have better range the 744s. It might be because of ETOPS requirements, but I believe that’s why we don’t see any of their 777s going to Australia. Any know if I’m right on that?

  20. David SFeastbay says:

    CF wrote:

    Mark wrote:
    The 777-200ER already has a greater range than a 747-400.
    I don’t believe United’s 777s do have better range the 744s. It might be because of ETOPS requirements, but I believe that’s why we don’t see any of their 777s going to Australia. Any know if I’m right on that?

    NZ flys nonstop SFO-AKL with 777-200ER but LAX-SYD is a greater distance which might have something to do with it.

  21. CF says:

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    NZ flys nonstop SFO-AKL with 777-200ER but LAX-SYD is a greater distance which might have something to do with it.

    Yes, and United used to fly LAX to Auckland with a 777. I believe that was the edge of its range. But other airlines may have different capabilities than United.

  22. David SFeastbay says:

    CF wrote:

    David SFeastbay wrote:
    NZ flys nonstop SFO-AKL with 777-200ER but LAX-SYD is a greater distance which might have something to do with it.
    Yes, and United used to fly LAX to Auckland with a 777. I believe that was the edge of its range. But other airlines may have different capabilities than United.

    Totally forgot about DL using 777 for nonstop LAX-SYD but its a 777-200LR so that must be it, UA must only have the 200ER version.

  23. Dwight Looi says:

    Mark wrote:

    It seems the A350-900 offers little in terms of capacity and range compared to existing 777-200ERs. The 777-200ER already has a greater range than a 747-400. The A350 will be more fuel efficient, but if UA wants to retire 747s, they can do that today and replace them with 777s.

    Not in terms of capacity. But it carries the same number of people with less structural weight, more fuel and with a lower amount of installed thrust. In general, that means it is a more economical performer all round.

    B777-200ER
    142.9 tons empty
    297.5 tons MTOW
    188,000 lbs installed thrust
    7700 nm
    5.86 m cabin width
    300~310 seats (3-class; w/9-abreast Economy)
    32 LD3 (cargo)

    A350-900
    115.7 tons empty
    268 tons MTOW
    168,000 lbs installed thrust
    8100 nm
    5.59 m cabin width
    310~320 seats (3-class; w/9-abreast Economy)
    36 LD3 (cargo)

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