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]

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