Think of something you desperately want to have but are unable to get it as the product keeps being unavailable. What to do? United Airlines has found itself in this position in the last three years as it considered options to renew its fleet. Instead of waiting for Boeing’s yet to be launched New Mid-market Aircraft it has now ‘set a course for the future’ by buying 50 Airbus A321XLRs, it announced on December 3.
The news is a major blow to the business case of the NMA as United was seen as a serious potential customer for the type to replace its aging Boeing 757-200 fleet. When announcing a deal for the MAX 10 at the 2017 Paris Air Show, United’s David Letterman confirmed he was ‘all ears’ as to what Boeing was planning to do with the NMA.
But with General Electric’s David Joyce questioning the size of the NMA-market at the 2018 Farnborough Air Show and Boeing still looking at the configuration and production technologies for the ‘797’, time was beginning to run out for airlines like United. They want their fleet renewed by the mid-2020s.
Then, of course, the MAX-saga happened, putting everything on hold. At Boeing’s Q3 results conference call, CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the NMA was still ‘a serious project’ being looked at. Vice President Marketing Randy Tinseth was more frank at last month’s Dubai Air Show: let’s be clear, our priorities are full with a safe return to service of the MAX.
With the NMA being ‘just a paper plane from Everett’ (2017-quote former Airbus CCO John Leahy), there is little to chose for airlines like United. They have now selected the A321XLR. “The new Airbus A321XLR aircraft is an ideal one-for-one replacement for the older, less-efficient aircraft currently operating between some of the most vital cities in our intercontinental network,” says United’s Andrew Nocella, executive vice president, and chief commercial officer.
United operates a fleet of 56 757-200s, of which 6 are leased. The airline ordered 90 of the type back in May 1988 and started flying the 757 in August 1989. The fleet also includes 21 of the longer -300, of which 12 are leased.
The ultra-long-range version of the A321neo also opens up new destinations “to further develop our route network and provide customers with more options to travel the globe”, Nocella says, referring to routes that become possible from New York/Newark and Washington. United expects first deliveries of the A321XLR in 2024 with the introduction on international services in 2025.
United’s decision is interesting afront to US President Donald Trump’s tariffs on European-built Airbus aircraft announced last October and given fresh ammunition this week after the WTO ruled Airbus still enjoys benefits from government loans for the A350 and A380. It remains to be seen where Airbus will build the 50 XLRs that United has now ordered. So far, the type is exclusively built in Hamburg but the partly automated production line and specific issues to the Airbus Cabin Flex (ACF)-configuration have reduced the monthly rate. President and CEO Guillaume Faury has said that Airbus is looking at options to increase A321neo output to a sustainable 63 or even 70 by exploring various production options. A decision is expected early next year. If that includes a second XLR-line in Mobile (Alabama) to cater for US-demand for the type that would exempt the XLR from any US-tariffs as they are “Made in the USA”.
Delivery of the first A350 is deferred until 2027. (Airbus)
At the same time as announcing the XLR-order, United also said it has agreed with Airbus to defer delivery of the first A350-900s by five years to 2027 “to better align with the carrier’s operational needs’. United has 45 -900s on order but its history with the A350 has seen some twists and turns. The airlines originally ordered 25 in 2010, then swapped them for 35 -1000s in 2013 before changing back to 45 -900s in 2017. United has a history of constantly reviewing its fleet plans (check the Boeing MAX), so don’t be surprised there will be another revision. The first A350 was set to join United in 2016. This will become 11 years later then.