United Airlines and its mainline peers in the USA face a dilemma over what to replace their ageing Boeing 757 and 767 fleets with – and when.
Airbus is pitching a combination of the long-range version of its A321neo and A330neo lines for this middle-of-the-market segment, while Boeing is considering launching the clean-sheet New Mid-market Aircraft (NMA) with a target for entry into service by 2025 to meet this demand.
Neither strategy has yet caught the hearts and minds of US carriers, with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United all still weighing what they want their mid-market fleet to look like in the future.
"Our 767 and 757 replacement strategy will be a multi-faceted solution," says Gerry Laderman, treasurer and acting chief financial officer of United, during an interview at the carrier's Chicago headquarters. "The problem with those fleets – there is no problem with the fleets. We love the fleets, that is the problem."
As if to prove his point, United began the multimillion-dollar investment in upgrading some of its 767-300ERs with its new Polaris business class in 2017, and purchased three more of the type from Hawaiian Airlines earlier this year.
The aircraft, both launched in 1978 and with United taking its first 757 in 1989 and first 767 in 1982, were popular with US and foreign carriers alike. Boeing has delivered 968 passenger 757s, a line that was discontinued in 2004, and 974 passenger 767s, its orders and deliveries data shows.
United operates 127 757s and 767s, the second-largest combined fleet of the types in the world after Delta, Flight Fleets Analyzer shows. This comprises 56 757-200s, 21 757-300s, 34 767-300ERs and 16 767-400ERs.
Delta operates 206 of the aircraft, made up of 111 757-200s, 16 757-300s, 58 767-300ERs and 21 767-400ERs, the database shows.
But both carriers, as well as American to a lesser degree, face a conundrum over replacing the jets.
Timing is key to United's 757 and 767 replacement strategy. With both types, the airline must weigh the availability of new models against the added complexity of operating a smaller and smaller number of either type as they are phased out, says Laderman.
"When you start the process of replacing a fleet, you've got to figure out the optimal pace to do that, and you get to the point where the fleets are small enough you might as well just get rid of the fleet," says Laderman. "We don't have timing for that yet."
Some aircraft are easy replacements. The 757-200s powered by Pratt & Whitney engines that United operates domestic transcontinental routes on could be replaced by narrowbodies already on order – for example, Boeing 737 Max 10s that begin arriving in 2020, says Laderman.
The P&W-powered 757s are the carrier's oldest of the type with an average age of 24.2 years, Fleets Analyzer shows.
United also operates 41 757-200s powered by Rolls-Royce engines that operate long-haul flights across the Atlantic and to South America. For these aircraft, the A321LR and NMA are both possibilities, says Laderman.
None of the big three US carriers have committed to either the Airbus or Boeing alternative for these longer 757 missions, waiting perhaps for the latter to officially launch the NMA before making a decision.
Boeing says the NMA family will seat 220-270 passengers with a range of roughly 5,000nm (9,260km). This is slightly larger than United's transatlantic 757-200s, which seat 169 passengers, but on par with its 757-300s, which seat 234 passengers.
The 767 is a similar story. United operates two batches of 767-300ERs, an older collection of 23 aircraft with an average age of 24.7 years and a younger collection of 11 aircraft with an average age of 19.1 years, Fleets Analyzer shows. In addition, it has 16 even younger 767-400ERs that are only 16.1 years old on average.
Pacing and fleet complexity, again, are significant considerations in its 767 replacement deliberations, says Laderman.
While United is investing in its 767s, American has opted to replace the aircraft. It ordered 22 Boeing 787-8s to replace its 767-300ERs on a like-for-like basis, rather than invest in upgrading the aircraft.
Delta has ordered 25 A330-900neos with the first due in 2019 to replace some, but not all, of its 79 767s.
The availability of new aircraft will be critical in airlines' 757 and 767 replacement decisions. Airbus touts the imminent availability of its A330neo, which is scheduled to enter service with TAP Portugal later this year, while questions remain over Boeing and engine manufacturers' ability to deliver on the NMA by 2025.
However, both Delta and United appear willing to wait a few years for the NMA, with the former's chief executive, Ed Bastian, saying earlier this year that it is interested in and could be among the launch customers for the NMA.
Laderman does not go as far as saying the same for United, but he does say he never completely rules out an aircraft.
Source: Cirium Dashboard