A fleet conundrum is looming at United Airlines, driven by the simple fact that no aircraft manufacturers currently produce two categories of aircraft that United intends to retire by end-decade.
Those aircraft are Boeing 757-300s and 50-seat regional jets like Bombardier CRJ200s and Embraer ERJs.
United will continue operating those jets much of this decade. Other carriers surely will, too. But those jets must eventually be retired. The problem is, no replacements currently exist.
“We want a machine that produces the same profit margins as the 757-300, which does not appear to be in the cards at this point,” United chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella tells FlightGlobal on 3 October.
“A 50-seater hasn’t been produced in years,” he adds, speaking in Boston ahead of the IATA Annual General Meeting. “It’s really going to be a critical issue.”
At the end of 2020, United’s fleet included 21 ageing 757-300s, a type with more than 3,000nm (5,556km) of range and, in United’s configuration, 234 seats. The Chicago-based airline intends to operate the type until “as close to the end of the decade as possible”, Nocella says.
“It’s such a great machine,” he adds, citing the type’s range, economics and passenger comfort.
In June, United said it had ordered a combined 270 737 Max and Airbus A321neos. The airline will use those jets to replace 757-200s – but not its 757-300s.
Airline executives have long bemoaned the lack of a new aircraft with capabilities matching the 757. For years, Boeing teased about developing a 757 replacement known as its “New Mid-market Airplane”, which was to have up to 270 seats and 4,000-5,000nm range.
But that concept withered in recent years amid the 737 Max grounding and the pandemic-driven downturn. Boeing publicly stepped away from the project in early 2020.
Airbus has come closest to filling the gap its A321neo, particularly its in-development 4,700nm-range A321XLR variant. Boeing’s 737 Max 10, with 3,300nm range and 200-passenger capacity in two classes, does not come as close.
“Ultimately, we would like for Boeing and Airbus” to produce a narrowbody with more than 200 seats, Nocella says. In the coming years, airport constraints (meaning limited runway space and gates) will make 757-size aircraft more valuable. “When I think about… beyond 2030, the 130- to 150-seat aircraft are going to be too small,” he says.
Nocella faces the same uncertainty at the lower-end of United’s fleet. United plans to retire about 200 50-seat jets (replacing those with Embraer E-Jets). But it will keep about 100 50-seaters.
Again, no replacements exist.
“The 50-seaters are beginning their retirement phase, and by the end of this decade there will be very few 50-seat regional jets still flying, at least for United,” Nocella says. “Connecting smaller communities to major hubs… is going to become an issue at the end of this decade.”
Nocella questions whether a new regional jet would have the operating economics United needs to make its regional routes work. Regional jets tend to have higher per-seat operating costs than either turboprops or larger jet-powered airliners.
“The question is… Can they build it at the appropriate set of economics that allows us to flying it successfully?” says Nocella. “I would worry that that next-generation 50-seat jets would… not have what we need.”
Embraer has said it is considering developing a new turboprop in the 50-90-seat range, noting turboprops have better operating economics than regional jets.
United would consider a turboprop, Nocella says.
The Chicago-based airline also agreed to purchase 200 of an electric-powered regional airliners under development by Swedish company Heart Aerospace, and an electric air taxi under development by US firm Archer Aviation.
Many companies are working on similar electric-aircraft projects. But technological and regulatory hurdles – not to mention the sheer cost of developing a new aircraft – raise real questions of viability.
“We are hopeful,” Nocella says. “You have to start somewhere.”