Is United About to Acquire 2 Airbus A380s?

Yesterday Jenn T. pointed me to an thread suggesting that, supposedly, United management was confirming that they were in advanced talks with Airbus to acquire two A380s.

My first reaction was that this made no sense at all. The trend among US airlines has been capacity discipline. There’s no flight United operates with the demand for this large an aircraft. They’ve even down gauged their Sydney flights from 747s to 777s. If it made sense it would have to be on a route with more than one daily flight, where the flights would be combined meaning United would offer fewer frequencies.

No US airline has ordered an Airbus A380 to-date. While I love the plane from a passenger perspective, at least in premium cabins, the project hasn’t performed as well as expected and outside of Emirates hasn’t developed ongoing customers generating new interest and orders in some time.

Singapore A380 Suite

Qantas A380 First Class

Emirates A380 Shower Suite

Perhaps, though, poor sales of the A380 is exactly what could create a scenario where this is plausible. Shane M. points me to a Seeking Alpha piece on the rumor,

United is reportedly in intermediate stages of ordering the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the A380.

Supposedly they’re negotiating over 2 A380s that were originally destined for financially troubled Skymark Airlines of Japan which cancelled its orders last year.

If Airbus has a customer dropping out of the planes, and hasn’t been able to secure new orders, they’d be willing to sell these very cheap. And to get into the U.S. market, to finally place their first A380 with a US carrier, they’d be willing to take a real loss as well. The plane has been operational long enough that – pure speculation here – they no longer have agreements in place to reimburse existing A380 operators if they sell a plane for less than the price charged to that operator.

United would certainly operate the planes in an economy, economy plus, and business class configuration with no first class if this materialized. This wouldn’t be an over-the-top configuration with bar and lounge area, showers, and walled suites. It would be a high density plane meant for carrying a large number of passengers economically.

I remain skeptical, that much capacity only makes sense when reducing frequency which may not make sense from a revenue standpoint. This is only possible if the deal is so good that the planes are considered virtually free. And they may be — there’s talk of United receiving the planes “on a trial basis.”

Rumors are that the aircraft would be based in Houston or Washington Dulles. I doubt it — neither airport is capacity constrained. Replacing a 747 out of San Francisco perhaps plausible.

Very much a rumor, that may never come to fruition, but one being much-discussed and that provides some interesting hypotheticals!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I completely agree with your skepticism. I’ve learned to take everything on with a grain of salt. I can’t see them going through all the trouble (training, etc.) for only 2 aircraft.

  2. A new Seeking Alpha piece this morning confirms it. and it suggests SFO is the main base for the plane, and used on Shanghai route — United has been trying to secure a second daily shanghai flight, but cant get a good slot in PVG. hence A380 would solve that capacity demand.

  3. United on the move again.

    Leaving the others in the dust to Asia. AA has no real strategy for this most important of growth markets.

  4. Hey Gary– “United would certainly operate the planes in an economy, economy plus, and business class configuration with no first class if this materialized.” I know you’re not a big fan of United, but how are you sure they wouldn’t put first class on these planes?

  5. @Ethan – this has nothing to do with my ‘not being a fan’ … United execs have made very clear they aren’t a fan of Global First which is why they don’t invest in the product (they just haven’t removed it from legacy United aircraft that still have it).

  6. i could see IAD-FRA replacing UA’s frequency and one of LH’s (which flies 2 747s to IAD) since they’re JV partners and LH is retiring 744s as fast as they can

    I’d still bet against it happening though…

  7. There would be a lot of investment in training, spares/etc. inventory, and support costs just for two aircraft. Doesn’t sound like something UA would do but that’s just my completely uneducated layman’s guess.

  8. It would certainly be an attractive deal if UA could acquire these aircraft on a “trial basis.” Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Since these aircraft would likely have interior configurations like any other UA plane, there would be little “glamour” associated with flying them. SFO/PVG, SFO/SYD possible routes?

  9. If Malaysia is trying to get rid of theirs, wouldn’t United be able to buy those for cheaper than new ones from Airbus?

    @James K, Emirates is starting a 2 cabin A380 from Dubai to Copenhagen on December 1st.

  10. A couple of thoughts:
    1. United is the only american airline company KING flying to Asia, so it makes sense that this would be one of the routes with an A380.

    2. Global First may be dead – but it sells out on the Asian markets so maybe an A380 equipped with a few GF seats may work on a SFO/NRT or SFO/PVG route.

    3. SFO is A380 capable and the flights will undoubtedly be piloted with legacy United pilots as they already fly the A319/A320 planes AND United has a huge maintenance base at SFO. Frankly I trust UA maintenance over legacy CO maintenance on any day. (yes, I’m partial to legacy UA/pmUA!)

    4. It could also be high density configuration for domestic flights like SFO-ORD or SFO-IAD, again, from a hub city configured for A380 and configured for economy, economy plus & biz.

    5. Trial basis – or leasing ?

    6. I’m sure Malaysia’s A380 will go to Emirates and Turkish as they are set up with First Class Suites which I can’t see UA ever utilizing as Jeff Smisek is CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP.

  11. You would need three aircraft to operate SFO/PVG. TATL you could potentially consolidate two IAD-FRA and two IAD-LHR flights into one A380 each. God help you if you run into maintenance issues or something, the rebooking would be messy. I have a hard time believing adding all the infrastructure, training, etc for two aircraft would make sense, unless this is just the first foray into an expanded 380 operation. MH is trying to dump their 380s, so maybe it would make sense if UA was planning on grabbing those 380s as well as these.

  12. I sent this link to a VERY reliable source. This person would know. He replied with one word: “No.”

  13. I think on the EWR-TLV route this would be a great addition. There is such high demand and capacity is so high on these routes. They fly 2 777’s every day and they are always full.

  14. The rumor is bunk. I guess like anything else, UA “considered” the A380, but doesn’t want them. Unless you have a slot-controlled airport flying a VERY busy route — or are a Middle East airline receiving billions in subsidies — they make little to no economic sense. UA’s review confirmed that.

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