United Turns to the Airbus A321XLR; Boeing Can't Compete


It was only this summer when American announced an order for 50 A321XLRs. At the time, nobody seemed surprised. American is a customer of both Airbus and Boeing, and the A321XLR was the right airplane to fill the airline’s needs on long, thin routes that the 757 operates today. Now, United has done the exact same thing, placing an order for 50 A321XLRs. This time, it’s a somewhat different story.

United has been a staunch Boeing loyalist for many years. United hasn’t taken delivery of an Airbus from the factory since its last A320 rolled off the line in 2002. Yes, it has added a handful of second-hand A319s and A320s, but that is just an opportunistic way to grow the fleet for cheap. The only other Airbus order in the last 20 years has been for the A350, and that has become something of a joke. Here’s how that has gone:

  • December 2009 – United commits to an order for 25 A350-900s (pre-merger). Deliveries were expected between 2016 and 2019.
  • June 2013 – United converts those 25 A350s to A350-1000s and adds 10 more. Deliveries were pushed back to 2018.
  • September 2017 – United converts those 35 A350s back to A350-900s and adds 10 more. Deliveries were pushed back again to 2022.
  • December 2019 – United pushes first delivery back yet again to 2027.

Here we are a decade after the order was first made, and we’re still eight years away from an airplane being delivered. Even that seems highly suspect. I’d effectively consider this order dead except as a strategic weapon for United. And Airbus went along with it, since that last deferral was tied to the decision by United to order 50 A321XLRs.

Since United has had no interest in actually ordering AND taking delivery of a factory-fresh Airbus in decades, this order for the A321XLR is a big deal. While the current management team is likely more open to ordering from Airbus than in the past, it’s not clear that there was any option here. United needs the A321XLR since Boeing has absolutely nothing that can compete.

United has already ordered 100 of the similarly-sized 737 MAX 10s, but that airplane has big range limitations. The MAX 10 has a range of only 3,300nm while the A321XLR will be up around 4,700nm. Here’s why that matters to United:

Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Using Newark as a base, the darkest blue is the range of the MAX 10 while the medium blue is the additional range of the A321XLR. The MAX barely reaches Europe, and I would be surprised if it even lived up to this promised range since airplanes rarely do. Meanwhile the A321XLR can cover virtually all of Europe. That is incredibly important for an airline with hubs in Newark and at Washington/Dulles.

Remember, United has a substantial 757 operation from Newark and Dulles into Europe. United has said that this order will replace those airplanes, but it will also allow for big expansion.

Today, United has 13 757-200s which are used only to fly between Newark and the West Coast. (These are the pre-merger United airplanes.) Those will be replaced by 737 MAX 10s. Meanwhile, there are 40 757-200s that came from Continental and have more range. Those are the airplanes that serve Europe, and they’re the ones that will be replaced by the A321XLRs.

Here’s a look at all United’s current 757-200 scheduled routes for July 2020 via Diio by Cirium.

July 2020 United 757-200 Map via Diio by Cirium

The MAX 10 can do Hawai’i from the West Coast and it can run domestic flights. But those Europe routes are A321XLR or bust. With 50 of those on order, United can easily replace the 40 757-200s that cross the Pond and expand much deeper into Europe. Imagine routes that United can’t justify serving today because the smallest airplane it has with the range is a 767. Though I don’t know the list, I have to imagine that something like Dulles to Berlin or Newark to Helsinki might be possible. And don’t forget other continents. Newark to Dakar? Maybe down into Latin America from there or Houston? There is a lot that these airplanes can do.

Boeing has to simply sit on the sideline and watch. The MAX 10 doesn’t have the range. Talk of a new “middle of the market” aircraft has fallen flat. It’s unclear if that airplane will ever be built as the most likely customers continue to place orders with Airbus instead of waiting longer for Boeing to create something compelling. Boeing has plenty of other more pressing issues, and it may eventually decide that this isn’t where it needs to be spending its time.

Even if that’s not the case, Boeing finds itself falling further and further behind. It was one thing for Airbus to get regular-customer American on the board for the A321XLR. But getting United? That’s an even bigger victory.

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26 comments on “United Turns to the Airbus A321XLR; Boeing Can't Compete

  1. Hey, at least they have that highly important centrally located HQ in Chicago going for them …

  2. Since United has now opted for the XLR could you see Alaska converting some of there outstanding and often deferred 320 neo to XLRs

    1. Greg – I don’t see why they would. The XLR doesn’t get Alaska anything useful. It won’t reach Asia from the West Coast, and it doesn’t go far into Latin America from the airline’s hubs. They’re better off with plain old neos since they don’t need the range.

      1. They could hit Japan or Northern Europe from SEA. But I don’t think that’s even on their radar plus I think they need a larger domestic market share first.

    1. United has a fleet of fifty-four 767-300/400 aircraft, although I am not sure if this includes a fairly new 767 UA recently purchased from Hawaiian.

      United also has a fleet of twenty-one 757-300 aircraft, which the author never mentioned. They are primarily used domestically for HUB to HUB volumes. A MMA would also be a great replacement airplane for them provided the MMA offered a version with 230 seating in a multi-class configuration which the 737-100 does not. The 787 isa too expensive and too capable an airplane to use in these domestic markets where 230 seat plus airplanes in multi class configs are needed.

      Delta also has a sixteen 757-300’s, for a total of one hundred and twenty-seven 757’s, and seventy-seven 767-300/400’s.
      With a combined total of over two hundred 767’s and 757’s airplanes, Delta is in a GREAT position to drive a GREAT deal to be Boeing’s launch customer for the MMA if Boeing feels they HAVE to do it.

      1. tvmccabe – I didn’t mention the 757-300s, because they aren’t being replaced by this order. The NMA is too much of an airplane for those.
        Those are good Hawai’i airplanes,but they don’t need much range. At this point, I don’t know that anyone really wants the 757-300s, but they work for a niche so they are kept around.

        Regarding the NMA, I have to question how it would end up being able to compete with the A330neo. That’s a relatively cheap airplane compared to what I presume the NMA will be as an all new, clean-sheet design. The 787-3 could come back into play again – that was supposed to be the range-limited version that nobody bought. But at what point is that smarter than an all new NMA?

        If it were me, I’d build a new airplane to cover the 175-230 seat market.
        The 737-700 and smaller is niche at this point. Build something that replaced the 737-800/900 MAX 8/9/10 along with 757-300. That’s going to get more bang for the buck.

  3. I suspect United has been forced to buy the A321XLR because of the age of their 757 International fleet, which operates in a revenue sweet spot for several markets out of EWR and IAD. However I suspect they would prefer a MMA airplane with 5,000 miles range, allowing to execute a similar “sweet spot” smaller market strategy from mid continent HUBs and the West Coast HUBs to Europe. The MMA would allow them more expansion opportunities from other HUBS, which the A321XLR’s range won’t. In addition, they have another need, though more distant, to replace their large 767-300/400 international fleet. They are doing some of this with 787’s, which has too much range and too much capability for some markets. I believe they would prefer a less expensive MMA airplane to replace the 767’s in some markets.

    Time will tell. And although Boeing is clearly falling behind, Delta’s 767/757 replacement program is sure to make or break the launch of any MMA program by Boeing. We’re getting close to the 7th inning of this game.

  4. No surprise that they walked away from/abandoned this market. They already did the same for the 100-130 sector as well by handing it on a silver platter to the likes of EMBRAER, Bombardier, and even Airbus itself to some extent. That leaves them with just the long and thin and the long and heavy. Boeing is a company that has truly lost its way and just doesn’t seem to care. They are a classic example of what happens when you try and fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place. remember the late 80’s/early 90’s? That was arguably their high water mark, when they had a full, comprehensive lineup, were considered profitable, and the undisputed world leader in commercial aerospace. The lineup at the time consisted of the 737-300, -400, -500, 757-200, 767-200, -300, and 747-400. And it was perfect. The 777 was arguably their last great design and also the beginning of the mess they are in now. Trying to do too much with too little.

    1. Well said, Matt
      Boeing’s lack of competitiveness in the top and bottom ends of the narrowbody market is frightful.
      Delta and United could launch the NMA on their own and want it.
      Boeing has to get to get their stuff together

    2. Boeing is buying 80% of the E-Jet/E-Jet E2 program from Embraer, so they definitely haven’t “abandoned” that market. Airbus did the same thing when it bought the CSeries (now A220).

      I’d also argue that the 787 program has been a dramatic success, and put them years ahead of Airbus in the widebody market.

      The gap in their lineup between the MAX 10 and the 787-8 is relatively minor, and is relevant only for a tiny fraction of likely airline routes. It’s great that Airbus was able to extend an existing aircraft to cover this segment of the market, but it’s also not surprising that Boeing would decide that this slice of the market isn’t worth the *huge* development costs for a new aircraft program.

      People also seem to assume that a NMA would be significantly cheaper than a 787-8, but I don’t see why that would be true. I’d assume it would have modern engines, composite construction, etc., so materials and labor would be similar to the 787-8. It might be slightly cheaper, but it could also be more expensive if the development costs would need to amortized over a smaller number of expected orders.

  5. You said that the 757-200s that United flies between Newark and the west coast are pre merger United airplanes. That is factually incorrect. They are pre-merger Continental planes. United has no pre merger united 757-200s in its fleet, The last were retired in mid 2015 or so. All remaining 757-200s in the current United fleet are pre merger Continental.

    1. Better check your information.
      The thirteen 757’s that UA uses between EWR and SFO/LAX are the former pre merger airplanes that United used on the PS Transcon service with the lie flat seats in front. They have been retained for the same service when moved from JFK to EWR.

      Please note you can recognize them because the have PW engines on them as did all pre merger United 757’s. The pre merger CO 757’s have Rolls Royce engines on them.

      1. Alex
        The A220 is easily winning sales contests vs. the E2
        The A321 is easily dominating large new generation powered narrowbodies.
        The market has spoken and it is overwhelmingly selecting Airbus branded large and small narrowbodies over Boeing’s
        A 787 lite and new narrowbody could solve Boeing’s product problem but they need to make up their mind and move as soon as the MAX os back in the air

    2. Better check you facts.

      The 13 aircraft in question were from United’s JFK Premium Service to the LAX and SFO.
      When United closed JFK, all 13 aircraft moved to EWR to perform the same Premium Service out of EWR to LAX and SFO. The 13 are a separate 757 sub fleet with lie flat seats and wi-fi and enhanced galleys. They have been in United’s pre merger fleet for about 15 years configured as PS aircraft.

      You can distinguish them because they have Pratt and Whitney engines, while the former Continental 757’s have Rolls Royce engines.

  6. The A321XLR seems to be a grand slam for Airbus. The 787 family is also a grand slam for Boeing. IMHO, all the hand wringing about the MOM/MMA – and Boeing’s future – is overblown to some extent. Why do I write this? Maybe it’s ignorance. It seems to me that the 787-8 can be the ideal MOM/MMA aircraft – and it’s available now. Sure, it’s quite a bit bigger and more capable than the “ideal” everyone touts, but it’s fully capable of performing the missions a MOM/MMA would be required to do. Not only that, but its range and performance allow it to do much more – and flexibility is an important consideration when airplanes cost millions of dollars apiece. In a parallel vein, it can be argued that the 757 was too much airplane for 90% of its missions, but now it’s revered.

    Using the 787-8 as a MOM/MMA aircraft means an airline can simplify its fleet. Airlines don’t need two aircraft types when one can suffice. I realize there’s always the trade-off between the economics of having the right plane for the job and having too many subfleets. If a 787-8 has issues, a hypothetical MOM/MMA can’t always replace it. But a 787-8 can easily do the job if the opposite situation occurs. There’s a general upguaging trend in the industry. Using the 787-8 as opposed to a hypothetical MOM/MMA fits nicely into that trend.

    Since the A321XLR is part of a larger family, it both simplifies fleets and provides the specialized aircraft needed for specific missions. The 757 couldn’t do that. It was too specialized. Being part of a family of aircraft is much of what makes the A321XLR a grand slam. I’m reading speculation about the A321XLR cutting out the need for a MOM/MMA. I’m not sure that’s the case. But it seems to me that Boeing would be better off developing an entirely new family of aircraft to compete with the A320 series, which could easily include a more-than-capable competitor for the A321XLR, or possibly a MOM/MMA variant. But for now, in my possibly uninformed opinion, the 787-8 is a very capable MOM/MMA aircraft that can nicely complement the A321XLR in most fleets – and did I mention that it’s available now?

  7. Cranky – how old are UA767s that they are using for all the London flights and how long realistically do they have to replace them?

    787-8 is still a hunk more airplane than a 767-300 so it wouldn’t necessarily be the most natural fit without a big capacity upshift.

    1. I might just have been unlucky, but although they’ve refreshed the onboard product, those 763’s have had quite a few mechanicals of late; my past two LHR-ORD/LHR-EWR flights have both pushed back on time, then sat on the taxiway before returning to a stand away from the gate for a few hours whilst they hit something or other with a hammer. Bit of a ballache when you have connections.

    2. Richard – They have a mix. Of the 38 767-300s, 21 were delivered between 1991 and 1993, so those have to be the first ones to retire. Then 14 were delivered between 1998 and 2001, so those have several years left. The last 3 were delivered to Hawaiian in 2002-2003 and United has just picked them up. The 16 767-400s, by the way, were delivered 2000-2002 so those also have some years left.

    3. On the most recent earnings call United’s CFO was asked about the airplanes.
      Since United just invested quite a bit of money in the airplanes to overhaul and reconfigure them, he said he didn’t expect to need to replace them for at least 5 years.

      FYI, after the 787’s they receive the next highest customer ratings, which in my opinion is based on the new seats up front and the premium economy seats, and also the 2 – 3 – 2 configuration in economy, making 6 of 7, or 86% of the economy seats either windows or aisles, much better than most other airplanes.

    1. I wish United would have brought back this livery instead of the one they are now going to (still too much Continental).

  8. Kirby was an Airbus guy when he and Parker were at US Air. Airbus bailed them out. All one supplier is a mistake, just ask SWA. I have always been a Boeing guy, but dual suppliers avoids the Max mess.

  9. Both UA and DL, and especially UA, really gave Boeing the first right of refusal if the 737max disasters never happen and Boeing could actually have resources to finally launch their long-awaited “797”. ET302 and all bets are off.

    And it’s also the easy way out offered by Airbus since no one really believes any of the delivery dates of their A350 order, if they’re even serious at all. So instead of UA losing a huge ass deposit fee or Airbus losing a major order, it’s a low cost and very conservative choice to safe face. And they already have scores of crew well trained on the 320/319ceo, so 321XLR is just really the same thing.

    I told my friend who works inside UA corporate earlier this week my prediction – if A350 were to ever happen at UA at all, it would be a “A350-1100” 15-years from now to gradually replace 777-300ER. The 359 is insufficiently orthogonal to truly coexist with the 789 at such a Boeing centric airline as UA that literally headquartered mere street blocks away from each other inside The Loop.

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