United Airlines Commits To Huge Aircraft Order, Retrofitting Domestic Fleet With Premium Interiors

United has placed an order for 270 narrowbody planes: 200 Boeing 737 MAXs (50 MAX 8s, 150 MAX 10s) and 70 Airbus A321neos. 200 regional jets will be replaced by mainline aircraft. And they’re retrofitting cabins on their existing narrowbody planes with more premium seats, seatback entertainment with bluetooth for headphones, seat power and larger overhead bins. The retrofit is promised to be 66% complete by 2023 and 99% complete by 2025.

Most of this had already leaked, and I reported that it was expected, but it’s still huge news that it’s happening. The airline clearly sees strong travel growth and a return of business travel to normal levels sooner than competitors.

United Could Take A New Plane Nearly Every Day By 2024

Currently United has the oldest fleet among major U.S. airlines at 16.8 years, two and a half years older than Delta (14.3). Southwest’s average fleet age is 12.6 years, and American’s 12. By 2023 United will be taking 1 new plane every 3 days.

They’ll be taking planes:

  • 2022: 40
  • 2023: 138
  • 2024: “as many as” 350

Premium Strategy With Seat Back Entertainment On Every Plane

United will also be offering the “industry’s fastest available in-flight WiFi,” effectively solving for the major issue that makes them unflyable today.

The airline will be returning to its pre-pandemic strategy of going premium (such as premium-heavy Boeing 767s and CRJ-550s). They plan for a 75% increase in premium seats per departure compared to 2019. That figure includes not just premium cabins but also extra legroom coach.

  • Boeing 737 MAX 8: 16 first class, 54 economy plus
  • Boeing 737 MAX 10: 20 first class, 64 economy plus
  • Airbus A321neo: “similar to that of the 737 MAX 10”

Bear in mind that while United is premium-heavy, coach isn’t a great experience even with seat back screens. It’s just that there are more premium seats on the plane to escape standard coach.

Framed As Good For Jobs And The Environment

“Woke” United Airlines emphasizes the number of union jobs supported by their plans throughout. This also supports an industry strategy of aligning itself with the Biden administration, in hopes of more sweet, sweet taxpayer cash. They’re even promoting that they “”generate[..] about $4 billion of direct (ticket excise, fuel, and property) and payroll taxes” even though of course they are not cash corporate income tax payer.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker threw down against United saying that for all of their bluster and claims to innovation, it was American’s newer, more fuel efficient planes that were really better for the environment. While in the long term it could be United’s investments in direct carbon capture that matter most, the claim that United flies old planes will no longer hold. As Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker says, it’ll only be delta that flies ‘crap’ planes.

Positions American Airlines As The Downmarket Player

American’s core differnetiator as frequently framed by its executives has been new planes, fast wifi, and larger overhead bins. United plans to match these, while offering more premium seats and seat back video for all passengers.

American’s strategy has been to eliminate seat back video as they reduce the number of business class and extra legroom coach seats on planes. While they had briefly re-considered this strategy pre-pandemic, they’ve even spent money to remove screens while racking up record-breaking debt and living on the government dole. This will leave American alone amongst the ‘big 3’ not giving customers a screen at their seats, with Delta leading the industry in this area and committed to free, fast internet. (American was prepared to make internet free, but only once Delta did.)

Still, this announcement isn’t enough to come close to making up for illegally withholding refunds from customers and devaluing MileagePlus awards when no one was looking.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. […] United’s financial advisors “have begun contacting potential investors including private equity firms” about a sale of less than 15% of the MileagePlus program. The buyer may be a strategic partner “to help better monetize data from the business.” A sale could certainly bring over $3 billion in cash while the carrier has huge capital expenditures coming for aircraft acquisition and retrofits. […]


  1. This is an absolutely huge move by United and good for them for recognizing that they have to deal with their excessive reliance on 50 seat regional jets whose days are otherwise numbered. They also have to deal with the massive growth of low cost carriers which have lower unit costs.
    There are massive risks and downsides as well. First, United will not have the fleet to compete in many small markets any more. Nationwide network airlines like American and Delta need either large regional jet fleets which American has or a relatively small regional jet fleet and a small mainline narrowbody. United will have a very small position with either – but United has never done well in small markets compared to AA and DL.
    Second, UA will take on a massive amount of debt and will likely become the most indebted US airline as a result. They will get their operating costs down but their total costs will reflect their high debt service costs, just as AAL’s did pre-covid.
    Third, any carrier that expects to grow has to expect they will face huge competitive pressure whether they say they are retaking natural share or simply seeking new growth opportunities for themselves. UA already had the lowest market share in its hubs of the big 4 and that is going to be a huge threat as they execute this plan.
    This is a very bold move for United but they clearly had no choice on many levels.

  2. UA’s fleet and strategy is OLD and needs this refresh desperately. Good to see the 50 seaters go away, but both DL and AA have quality planes in the 100 – 130 range which UA is abadoning, they might be a miss, but time will tell.

    UA has waffled on seat back entertainment, likely with the “cordless” versions it will be lighter and reduced the amount of underseat space it takes up. I hope they will be able to connect to my bluetooth headphones.

    I won’t go as far as Kirby verses Parker just yet. This is a big gamble and if it fails, UA is in bankruptcy again. I hope the A321neo replaces that aweful A350 order and UA goes with all 787’s to replace the 777-200s. Time will tell, now about their inflight service. . .

  3. Just went to book a domestic flight for our family of 4 on AA. With the new 737 configurations there are only 2 rows of extra legroom seats in coach that we can sit in with our kids. As those are already booked, it’s back of the bus with 30″ pitch if we want to fly AA. Very disappointed in the direction they have gone and it’s great to see others investing in a more premium product.

    As a longtime EXP and lifetime PLT member I’ve been looking at switching to Delta once I begin flying regularly again due to the poor product offering. Now, United looks like another viable option once they upgrade their product.

  4. I find it interesting UA is buying the Max AND the Neo, planes with roughly similar pax capacity and range. It seems it would make more sense to buy all of one or the other. Is including the Airbus to placate European governments?

  5. @David Moore,
    UA may be hedging against more skeletons in the Max closet. Last few years have not been stellar for Boeing with 787 and Max issues.

    If anything, UA is cowtowing to the USA! USA! crowd rather than the EU.

  6. You used the term Woke. Not sure if this reflects your political affiliation – but remember – Jesus was woke!! 🙂

  7. Good move by UA. I’m a lifetime AA Plat 3MM and former ExPlat who got fed up with AA and bolted to UA a few years ago. Since I’m based in Dallas it isn’t easy to always fly UA but I’ve been a relatively happy 1K for four years now. I don’t care about ‘woke’ and I detest politics – will leave that stuff for the narrow-minded crowd with excess time on their hands. All I care is that UA runs an operation that safely gets me where I want to go with the least amount of hassle and with acceptable and accountable service. These moves by Kirby will improve the situation for me.

  8. Gary, Could you please avoid the use of the word “woke?” Honestly, I have no idea what it means except that it has been subsumed by one or both of our political parties as a derogatory term. I don’t even know which party uses it as a deregotative, and I don’t care. The word is meaningless as far as I’m concerned. Avoid using it; you’ll reduce confusion, and will avoid stirring up politics-based anger.

  9. Gary, Could you please avoid the use of the word “woke?” Honestly, I have no idea what it means except that it has been subsumed by one or both of our political parties as a derogatory term. I don’t even know which party uses it as a deregotative, and I don’t care. The word is meaningless as far as I’m concerned. Avoid using it; you’ll reduce confusion, and will avoid stirring up politics-based anger. Thanks–Jim

  10. I’m disappointed about the seat-back video. With decent wifi it’s unnecessary, and so many once-a-year passengers conflate “touch-screen” with “full-tricep-extension-poke-screen” for their games of frogger.

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