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.