q United Makes Some Big Fleet Changes, More Widebodies Coming to Domestic Flights – Cranky Flier

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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21 comments on “United Makes Some Big Fleet Changes, More Widebodies Coming to Domestic Flights

  1. What goes around comes around as the saying goes. Airlines are going back to the days of flying 747/L10/DC10 on domestic routes, and back then it wasn’t just to major cities. You used to have L10/DC10’s in cities like OMA,IND,CMH. When was the last time anyone flew on a 747 between JFK/ORD and LAS?

    Guess the big boys are going to steal Family Airlines business model :-)

    1. Brings back memories of flying a Delta 747 between Dallas Love Field and ATL, and a Braniff “Great Pumpkin” from MIA to DFW, both back in the 70’s. The latter was a repositioning flight with maybe six passengers on it.

      1. I flew a National Airlines 747 from JFK’s to MIA and back as a 7 year old. I remember it fondly. 1972 I believe.

    2. I used to love flying wide bodies from LAX to BOS in the 1980s. Those went away in the 1990s when they were replaced by the B757. I can only hope some wide bodies return to service the LAX-BOS route.

  2. It’s definitely an interesting move–and domestic widebodies on hub-to-hub were a lot more common in the “pre-merger” United days than they are now. But, I’m not sure we’ll see other airlines copy–Scott Kirby, AA’s President, was asked the next day about domestic widebodies, and said that he prefers more frequency with narrowbodies.

    1. Scott Kirby (aka, “the smartest guy in the room”) went further than that. In the conference call he actually said: “It’s lower cost to provide two narrow bodies than it is to provide a single wide body for the same amount of seats.”

      I find this intriguing — and counterintuitive. Two flight crews, four engines instead of two, etc. Was this statement hyperbole, or is it actually true?

      1. As someone pointed out on FT (and I haven’t bothered to verify), two 737s weigh a lot less than one 777.

      2. It’s an interesting point. However, on routes like EWR-SFO, where UAL is running 12 flights a day (between hourly and every other hour) on 738/9 or 752/3 throughout the day, the opportunity cost of tying up all of those planes on one route may outweigh the additional expense.

        I can see UAL putting a few 772’s in rotation to time with a lot of connections at either end, while using the NB’s to launch additional frequencies/upgauge on other routes or to add new routes.

  3. I’ll cheer this move. Miss the days of flying DC-10’s and L1011’s around domestically. Any airplane with 2 aisles is far better than 1 when it comes to comfort. Obviously dropping the 50 seaters is the biggest gain possible in up-gauging an aircraft, but if I can get on a 777 instead of a 737, that’s just icing on the cake.

  4. Move in the right direction for consumers but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I doubt we will see heavies replacing the E & CJets that litter ramps in IND, CMH, OMA, JAX, etc. This strategy is viable because of the trinity of consolidation, commodities and capacity constraints.

    Now that we are down to 3 (and everyone has at least one fortress in their network) there is less pressure to compete on super frequency. Thirty minute wingtip departures on RJs from A to B to jockey for better GDS display is not as critical as years past.

    Oil won’t stay cheap forever and planners know it. Thumbs up for thinking 5 years out rather than 5 months. This is the kind of long term thinking that will help the industry ride out the next downturn.

    Finally there is the capacity elephant in the living room. As Cranky and others have explained; when conditions in the northeast, ORD, SFO etc go to hell the regionals take the brunt of cancelations. Less frequent, higher capacity departures put some IRROP slack in the system and uncomplicate post event ops recovery. Next Gen is great and may be a reality during the Bush 53rd Presidency .

    Also let’s not forget that less than a decade ago L-UAL was running 76-300s, 777s and 74s between hubs. It’s not like this decision is a rogue game changer.

  5. How much do longer turnover times hurt the economics of running widebodies on short flights? Taking 45 minutes to board a 777 isn’t so big a deal on a 10 hour flight, but it eats up a much larger portion of a plane’s time on shorthaul domestic.

  6. Bravo! I’ve always believed United needs, as of yesterday, to STOP, running 737-800s transcons without mid cabin lavatory. Surely, United’s management is aware of passenger inconvenience its lack of main cabin lavs creates – yet it doesn’t seem to care – otherwise It would have installed mid-cabin lav. It’s really that simple…

    On recent flight, line for lavatories stretched back to over-wing exit, nearly entire 6 hour flight – and this is not first time I’ve witnessed this on United’s transcons.

    Seems to be total lack of caring about passenger conveniences – to include those sitting on aisle and, for 6 hours, having to endure others leaning on their seats – not to mention the havoc created when flight attendants attempt to pass those massive lines for lavatory.

  7. This is really awesome. I question what it will do to the regional carriers though. Surely, SkyWest, etc crew won’t be crewing these heavies. So this also has to be a bit of good news for the mainline carrier and United’s Pilot’s/FA’s, etc? Bad news for the small guys?

  8. Not true about the 787 being a more efficient 767-sized plane. It is MUCH bigger. 9 across vs. 7 on the 767. Larger than the A330 also.

    Typical seat counts:
    B763: 218/269 – max 350
    A332: 253/293 – max 406
    B789: 280/360 – max 420
    B772: 314/400 – max 440

    1. It’s absolutely a 767-sized plane. You just aren’t comparing apples to apples. Seat counts on United:

      B763 – 214
      B788 – 219

      B764 – 242
      B789 – 252

      1. Spoken like someone who’s never been on a ramp/factory/etc. before (or fruit aisle of a supermarket). Go see one in person, they are deceptively large.

        I absolutely am comparing apples to apples. You can configure an A380 with only 214 seats too, but it doesn’t make it 767-sized.

  9. Talking about Delta’s playbook, United has been taking another play out of it when recently acquiring two second-hand 737-700s (from Copa) and now rumored to be looking at a batch of ex China Southern A319s.

  10. a few years ago some IRROPs found me sitting on a delta 767 heading from ATL to LGA. it was by far the biggest plane i have every flown to/from LGA. i felt like the queen of france.

  11. Brett:

    AA’s 50-seat count (and total American Eagle count) is actually going UP YoY from YE2014 to YE2015!


  12. I’ll be happy to see some E175’s replace some of the ERJ-145’s and CRJ- 200’s at my home airport ELP on the routes to IAH and DEN. I also heard a rumor from a UA supervisor there that eventually UA may start an ELP-IAD nonstop with the 175’s.

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