United Makes Some Big Fleet Changes, More Widebodies Coming to Domestic Flights

Over the last few years, we’ve seen most US airlines get really excited about using smaller mainline aircraft in favor of having more flight frequencies. This began to change a couple years ago at the smaller end of the aircraft spectrum, but now it’s coming to the bigger end as well. United has made some fleet changes that include bringing 10 of its 777s into the domestic market.

United Shuffles Its Fleet

The big airlines always want to cater to the high-dollar corporate traveler, and for years the way to do that has been to use smaller airplanes on more frequent flights. That’s one reason the wildly successful 787 has sold so well while the monstrous A380 has not. But as is often the case, this plan only works to an extent. The big US carriers dove in head first, but have spent the last few years backing things up. All of the big carriers have looked at using larger airplanes when it makes sense, and that has been the case many times.

The changes to using larger aircraft have mostly occurred on small and medium size aircraft. It turns out those 50 seat jets aren’t very profitable in many cases, especially when oil is high. With the pending pilot shortage issues and inferior product on the 50 seaters, that meant using bigger airplanes made a ton of sense. Delta, United, and American are all racing to retire a ton of 50 seaters in exchange for aircraft in the 64-110 seat range instead. (United will finish retiring 130 of the 50 seaters by the end of this year.)

This happened in the medium range as well. Airlines like US Airways pushed aside A319s/A320s in favor of bigger A321s. Delta and Alaska are doing the same. But this isn’t a trend we’ve seen much in the world of widebodies.

Though United has orders for a few different aircraft on its books, most of its widebody growth has been with 787s. And those aren’t big airplanes. They’re meant to be a more full-efficient, longer range 767. That has opened up new routes like San Francisco to Chengdu and LA to Melbourne. It has also allowed United to use smaller airplanes on routes that used to require a 777, like LA to Shanghai.

In its most recent earnings call, however, United announced it would trade in orders for 10 of its 787s and turn them into bigger 777-300ERs instead beginning next year. United doesn’t operate the 777-300ER yet, but many airlines have used it to replace 747s.

That’s not United’s plan, at least not yet. United is going to have those 777-300ERs replace 10 777-200s. Where will those go? Into the domestic market. Wow, didn’t think you’d see that coming did you?

Though we don’t know exactly which routes will see these airplanes, I think it’s safe to assume that you’ll see them on big hub-to-hub routes. Maybe they’ll go back into Hawai’i more frequently as well. It should be noted that this airplanes will be converted into a domestic configuration, so that likely means a lot more coach seats and no fancy premium cabin. United does that today on a small subfleet of 777s, though it’s unclear if these will be configured the same way.

That leaves the 777-300ER to act as an upgauged airplane to fly international routes. United undoubtedly got a smoking deal on these from Boeing. The end of the 777-300ER is coming once the next generation is built, but Boeing needs to keep the production line going until that happens. Plus, now Boeing could re-sell those United 787 delivery slots at what must have been a higher price than United originally paid. Everyone is happy.

But how is United going to replace those 787s in its fleet plan? Piece of cake. It has decided to give a stay of execution to 11 of the 767-300ERs that were going to head to the scrap yard. Some of those will certainly be able to fly shorter 787 routes. But they will also be used to replace some 757 flying as well. If you didn’t see it, United is going to stop flying its 757s on long Europe routes from Newark (like Berlin). Those are notorious for requiring fuel stops on westbound flights in the winter. That problem goes away.

Now those 757s can come back into the Americas and do more Latin and even domestic flying. I find myself wondering if these airplanes will be reconfigured or if we’ll just see more international premium cabin aircraft operating within the US.

For customers, this is just about entirely good news. And for United, it seems like the airline is taking a play out of Delta’s playbook. This was an opportunistic fleet move that should make everyone happy.

[baseball photo via Shutterstock]

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