The executive in charge of fleet planning for the new United Airlines expects it will take at least several months to make any key fleet plan decisions in the aftermath of its merger with Continental Airlines.

United VP fleet Ron Baur told the 19 October Cargo Facts 2010 Aircraft Symposium in Miami the post-merger fleet planning process has just begun since the merger was only completed three weeks ago.

"There are still a lot of unanswered questions," Baur told the symposium. "This process will take months."

He says some of the unanswered questions include the future of the narrowbody fleet as Continental is the world's third largest Boeing 737NG operator while United has an older Airbus A320 fleet. "It will be interesting to see how we balance those two types together," Baur says.

Early this year United said it was committed to making a new narrowbody selection by the end of 2010 but since the merger was completed the carrier's new executive team has indicated it is too early to specify a timeframe for this decision. Answering a question about possible re-engining of United's 737 and A320 fleets, Baur says "right now it's a little too early to tell for us".

Another unknown is how long United will be able to continue operating its 757 fleet. Baur says United has 96 757s with an average age of 17 years although the type remains popular among its route planners. "It's just too early too tell which way we'll go but it's one of the things my team will look at for the next months, years," says Baur, who previously was in charge of fleet planning at Continental.

Baur's 16-person fleet planning team will also be looking at widebodies, including how long it can continue operating some of United's older 777s. The carrier already has Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s on order.

Baur says the 787s are still on track for delivery starting the fourth quarter of next year. Baur told ATI and Flightglobal after his speech that before using its first batch of 787s to launch service from Houston to Auckland and Lagos in November 2011 the aircraft will be flown within its domestic network. He calls the long-range but relatively thin Houston-Auckland route "the poster child for that aircraft".

Baur told the symposium "right now there's no intention to shrink the fleet at all" as the new executive team sees the United and Continental networks as completely complementary. "With the new route map we'll really offer our business travellers, which is really the bread and butter of our business, the opportunity to fly to any part of the world," he says.

But Baur adds the new United has the fleet flexibility to shrink if market conditions warrant. "If need be we can dial down the fleet or grow it," he says.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news