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:
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.
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.