What Happened To United’s Airbus A350 Order?

United Airlines has an order for 45 Airbus A350-900s on the books. The carrier first ordered Airbus A350-1000s before later converting its order to the A350-900. At the time, it was a huge deal that United would be taking a non-Boeing widebody and would fly the A350s along the 787s. Now, eleven years after the initial order, there are zero Airbus A350s in the airline’s fleet.

United Airbus A350
United Airlines does not plan on taking the A350 until 2027 at the soonest. Photo: Airbus

The initial Airbus A350 order

Back in 2009, United Airlines announced an order for 25 Airbus A350s and 25 Boeing 787s. The Airbus A350s were expected to arrive at the airline starting in 2016. The A350s would go towards replacing the Boeing 747 and help transition United away from a three-type widebody fleet down to two. Plus, the A350 was quite flexible and would help open up new routes for United across Africa, Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Europe.

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Adjusting the order

Four years later, in 2013, United Airlines altered its order for the Airbus A350 aircraft. The carrier converted United’s order for 25 Airbus A350-900s from 2009 into Airbus A350-1000s. Plus, United added ten firm orders of the type taking its overall order book to 35 for the Airbus A350-1000. Delivery was also pushed back to 2018.

The A350-1000s would replace the older widebodies in United’s fleet. The carrier was keen to take the aircraft because of its fuel savings. Alongside the change of the A350 order, United announced an order for 10 Boeing 787-10s and converted ten existing 787 orders into the -10 variant. This took United’s total 787 order book at the time to 65 jets.

United Airlines
United, by 2013, was already looking like it would be favoring the 787 Dreamliner. Photo: Getty Images

Adjusting again – back to the A350-900

Then, in 2017, United again amended its order. The airline converted its order for 35 A350-1000s into an order for 45 Airbus A350-900s. Airbus and United highlighted, again, the aircraft’s long-range capabilities without necessarily compromising payload as an asset to United’s international route system.

Deferring the aircraft to 2027

In late 2019, United Airlines announced that it was not taking delivery of an Airbus A350-900s until 2027. The planes were previously expected at the airline in 2022. United decided to defer the aircraft order alongside an order for 50 Airbus A321XLRs.

United A321XLR
The Airbus A321XLR was a big order for United, but alongside it, the fate of the A350s remains up in the air. Photo: Airbus

Deferrals do happen for a number of reasons. However, a new postponement of five years, moving the initial delivery date by 11 years from what was first anticipated, is a big deal.

Will United cancel the aircraft order?

It is not unheard of for airlines to cancel old aircraft orders that it no longer needs. Delta Air Lines canceled an order for Boeing 787 aircraft after deferring it several years, although that one was inherited through a merger.

But, things have changed at United. The 747s are gone, and replacing those aircraft were not A350s, but rather Boeing 777s and 787s. Data from Planespotters.net shows that United has 96 Boeing 777s in its fleet and 57 Boeing 787s. United also has more Boeing 787s on order.

United still also has Boeing 767s, meaning its widebody types currently are the Boeing 767, 777, and 787. Before, United planned to bring those types down to the 787 and Airbus A350. However, with the 777-300ERs being very new, it is not easy to imagine United will retire the 777s and replace them with Airbus A350s.

United Paine Field
One of United’s final Boeing 777-300ERs, as seen in Paine Field. United took delivery of its last 777-300ER in 2020. Photo: Jay Singh – Simple Flying

In 2027, the A350s could be better timed to replace some 777s. But, United would still have a sizeable number of the type in its fleet. If United does a 1:1 replacement with A350s to 777-200s, then it would still have about 29 Boeing 777-200s left in its fleet alongside the 22 Boeing 777-300ERs.

As of now, it seems a bit up in the air if United will ever take the Airbus A350s. Deferrals are never a good sign, and a complex widebody fleet does no good for an airline’s efficiency and only serves to increase costs. But, if the airline changes up its 777 plans and chooses to emerge smaller from the crisis in terms of its widebody fleet, then there could be an argument in favor of United taking on the A350s.

Do you think United will take on the Airbus A350s? Let us know in the comments!