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United adds A321XLR as possible 757 replacement

United Airlines has added the possible long-range Airbus "A321XLR" to its list of replacement options for some of its aging Boeing 757s, as it aims to replace the middle-of-the-market portion of its fleet in the next decade.

The Chicago-based carrier estimates a need for 30-40 mid-market aircraft to replace both 757s and Boeing 767s from the mid-2020s, United president Scott Kirby told employees in a video of a San Francisco town hall held at the end of March that was viewed by FlightGlobal.

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The balance of its 757 and 767 fleet, which Cirium's Fleets Analyzer shows includes 127 aircraft, can be replaced by Boeing 737 Max 10 and Boeing 787-8 aircraft, he says. Another option is sub-optimising the fleet and replacing all of its 757 and 767s with 737 Max and 787s, adds Kirby.

"We feel really good about the bulk of the narrowbody, the bulk of the widebody fleet," says Kirby. "That 30 to 40 airplanes for 757, 767 replacements we don't have a good answer for."

United has firm orders for 45 Airbus A350-900s, 45 737 Max 9s, 100 737-10s, four Boeing 777-300ERs, 13 787-9s and seven 787-10s, Fleets Analyzer shows.

The carrier has been evaluating replacement options for its mid-market fleet for years. In 2018, United chief financial officer Gerry Laderman outlined how, in addition to the 737 Max and 787s on order, it was also looking at the Boeing New Mid-market Airplane (NMA) as well as the Airbus A330-800 and A321LR for the segment.

"Our 767 and 757 replacement strategy will be a multi-faceted solution," he said in a June 2018 interview.

It is common for airlines to consider all possible fleet options before placing an order. For example, the Lufthansa Group is considering narrowbody alternatives from Airbus, Boeing and Embraer for its next order, despite being a large Airbus A320 family operator.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which also face a mid-market replacement conundrum, have taken different approaches. American ordered 787-8s to replace its 767s but has yet to select a 757 replacement, while Delta has ordered A330-900s to replace some of its 767s and continues to evaluate options for the bulk of its 757 and 767 fleets.

Airbus is studying a longer-range version of the A321LR, which industry observers have dubbed the A321XLR, but not provided any technical specifics or a timeline for the potential aircraft. The airframer delivered the first A321LR to Arkia Israeli Airlines in November.

Guillaume Faury, president of Airbus' commercial aircraft division and chief executive of Airbus from 10 April, said in January that they are waiting for Boeing to make a move on a mid-market product before moving forward with the possible aircraft.

However, Boeing has not commented on mid-market aircraft development since the 737 Max, the latest update of the US airframer's workhorse narrowbody, was grounded in March after two fatal crashes.

United operated 14 737-9s when the type was grounded. In the video, Kirby says the airline has been "covering all the lines" with other aircraft in its fleet, whereas other US 737 Max operators American and Southwest Airlines have been cancelled flights.

Fort Worth, Texas-based American has removed the 737 Max from schedules through 5 June, resulting in at least 7,560 cancellations of roughly 90 flights a day.

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