United Airlines will complete the phase-out of its McDonnell Douglas DC-10 fleet by March following a decision to dispose of United Cargo's fleet of dedicated freighters and combis in favour of using only belly hold cargo space on passenger aircraft.

The airline says it is looking to sell or lease out its four DC-10-30F and three -30CF combis after it winds up its international freighter service from December 24. At the same time United plans to retire its remaining three DC-10-10 and three DC-10-30s passenger by March.

"As part of our review of operations and in light of recent problems we needed to do something immediately, and so decided to retire all the DC-10 freighters and passenger aircraft," says the airline. In addition to "frequent maintenance issues" the freighter service has struggled financially since it was launched in March 1997.

United's freighters fly 24 weekly frequencies from Los Angeles and Chicago to Japan and the Philippines. It was badly hit by the Asian economic downturn and even following the recovery "it has continued to be an uphill battle," says the airline.

The cargo arm was unprofitable last year on a $906 million turnover, while revenue for the first half this year has remained flat at $450 million. This has been further compounded by rising fuel prices and the cost of maintaining a standalone DC-10 operation in the Pacific.

A year ago, the airline threw down a challenge to Boeing to offer a freighter version of the 777, which it saw as a potential replacement for the ageing DC-10Fs.

United had also studied replacing the DC-10 with a Boeing 747 freighter, but without more robust growth in the Asian market it was ruled out as financially uneconomic. "We may re-enter the market in the future if the economics become more favourable," adds the carrier.

Source: Flight International