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United goes airframer 'agnostic' on future orders

United Airlines no longer pledges allegiance to any particular airframer, despite a fleet and orderbook dominated by Boeing models.

"We, as a company, are going to be completely agnostic about airplanes," said Scott Kirby, president of United, in a video of an employee meeting in Los Angeles during the week of 25 September. "We're not going to be a Boeing airline or an Airbus airline, we're going to be whoever gives us the best deal."

The airline ordered 45 Airbus A350-900s, converting 35 -1000s to the smaller variant and adding 10 aircraft to the order, in September and converted 100 737 Max orders to the Max 10 in June.

However, United's orderbook remains heavily stacked towards Boeing, with nearly 78% of the 202 aircraft it has on order coming from the US airframer and just 22% from Airbus, the Flight Fleets Analyzer shows.

Kirby attributes this split for Boeing to a "most favoured customer clause" provided by Airbus to American Airlines for its 2011 order of 260 A320 family aircraft. The European airframer has to refund any difference in price to American if it sells an aircraft to another airline at a lower rate, he says.

"Airbus just can't give us a competitive price today," says Kirby on narrowbodies.

Kirby was president of American from December 2013 to August 2016.

Airbus declines to comment on its agreement with American, saying it does not comment on customer contracts or discussions.

United's price-conscious approach to aircraft mirrors a similar strategy at Delta Air Lines emphasised by that carrier's former chief executive Richard Anderson.

“We like to see Boeing and Airbus… them all come to Atlanta, put them in separate rooms and see what happens," said Anderson on pitting the airframers against each other in the interest of getting the lowest price on aircraft in 2014.

Delta ordered 25 Airbus A330-900neos and 25 A350-900s after a fierce battle with Boeing, which included the 787-9, in November 2014.

Kirby does not mention either the Bombardier CSeries or Embraer E-Jet family as possible aircraft suppliers to United in his remarks. He has previously said that a 100-seat aircraft, which both families include, does not make sense for the airline's mainline fleet.

United operates 749 mainline aircraft, of which nearly 79% are Boeing models and only 21% are Airbus models, Fleets Analyzer shows.

The favour towards Boeing dates to the 1990s when Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2010, signed an exclusivity agreement with the Chicago-based airframer in exchange for deeper discounts on aircraft.

Updated with comment from Airbus

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