Why United Airlines Would Be Interested In The Boeing NMA

United Airlines, with its fleet of aging 757s and 767s, is a top contender to place a big order for Boeing’s NMA, also known as the 797. Why would this aircraft be such a good fit for the US airline, and will Boeing be in time to snag the order? Let’s take a look.

United 767
Why would United Airlines want the 797? Photo: Curimedia | P H O T O G R A P H Y via Wikimedia

Yesterday we talked about how good the 797 could be if and when it eventually gets built. Clearly, if Boeing fulfill all the promises and goals of this new midsize airplane (NMA), it could revolutionize air travel around the world.

Of course, in order for an aircraft to be a success, Boeing needs a buyer, or ideally many buyers. Are they out there? We think they are, and we reckon one of the first airlines queuing up to sign up for the 797 will be United Airlines themselves.

Here’s why United would love to order the Boeing 797.

An aging fleet

United Airlines has a bit of a fleet problem. At the small end of its operations, it’s got an order in for a number of the Boeing 737 MAX family to give its fleet some young, fresh metal. At the larger end, a growing fleet of young Dreamliners is satisfying its long haul capabilities. But what’s in the middle?

Stuck in the mid-size, mid-range bracket of United’s fleet is an aging population of Boeing 757s and 767s. Of the 757s, the airline flies 76, with an average age of 21.7 years between them. However, some of the oldest in the flotilla are approaching 30 years of age, with one, N502UA, already over 30.

United 767
United’s oldest 767, N502UA, has just celebrated its 30th birthday. Photo: InSapphoWeTrust via Flickr

In terms of 767s, United has 54 in operation, mostly of the -300 variant with 16 or so of the -400. Altogether, the 767s average 22.1 years old, with the -300s markedly older than the -400s. Although none are over the age of 30 yet, but several are well over 27.

United are not against older aircraft; not at all. In fact, the carrier has recently been noted as working towards purchasing more used A319s for short-haul ops, as they see an opportunity to get a good plane for less money. However, there’s an old plane, and then there’s an old plane.

Looking at the list of incoming used A319s, most date from around 2005 and 2006, clearly back on the market after coming to the end of their initial leasing period. At 14 or so years old, these are no factory-fresh aircraft, but next to the 757s and 767s, they look like spring chickens.

United 757
Despite being good old workhorses, aircraft of this age require quite some maintenance. Photo: Emirates EK27 via Wikimedia

Aircraft approaching 30 years old will require more maintenance, will be more susceptible to problems and will inevitably lead to more downtime, an issue which airlines are keen to avoid. To cut a long story short, these planes are old, and United are keen to put in place a strategy for replacing them.

What will replace the 757s and 767s at United?

Some might say that the larger variants of the 737 MAX go some way to replacing the aging Boeing jets. However, while the MAX 10 can push 230 passengers in a single class configuration, its range becomes too short to be a true 757 replacement. The 767, of course, is even bigger again, and still trumps the largest of the MAX in terms of range.

United 767
Bigger range, bigger capacity, the 737 can’t match it. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

What United needs is a middle-sized plane, seating around 250 or so passengers, which has enough range to deal with both transcontinental and transatlantic trips in an economical way. What would be even better would be if that were a twin aisle plane, to allow for faster boarding and disembarkation. And imagine if it had all the cool tech that the Dreamliner employs; low altitude pressurization, big windows, better bins… all that jazz.

We are, of course, effectively describing the proposed 797. Boeings promised forthcoming aircraft would successfully fill the boots of United’s 757s and 767s, allowing the airline to retire these aging birds and to avail of all the efficiency savings that come with a new aircraft.

Boeing 797
The 797 has the potential to tick all United’s boxes. Photo: Dj’s Aviation via Youtube

As and when the NMA is announced, I’d fully expect an order in the magnitude of 100 aircraft off the bat by United, probably with options for 100 more. And that’s before you get started with American or Delta. But will Boeing be ready in time?

How long can United wait for the 797?

The short answer is, not long. If the airline does not see sufficient movement in the 797 program in the near future, it is likely they’ll have to look elsewhere. While Airbus has not gone so far as to design an NMA of its own, it has purported to be able to fill this gap via a combination of the A321XLR and the baby A330, the -800.

Concept A321XLR in flight
The A321XLR isn’t quite the NMA solution, but it’s ready now. Photo: Airbus

With the waiting list for the Airbus planes growing longer by the day, United are understandably getting a bit twitchy. Back in July, Bloomberg reported that United had given Boeing a ‘prod’ for clarity on the NMA timeline. Boeing responded by saying that it had 1,000 people working on the design.

However, a launch date is still not forthcoming, although Boeing has said it will make a decision next year (2020) about whether to go ahead with the concept or not. But, as we all know, Boeing has a pretty full to-do list right now. Whether that has a bearing on the decision remains to be seen.

United previously said that it “has a little more time” to play with before a decision on their mid-size fleet has to be made. Hopefully Boeing jumps in the right direction to give their loyal US operators the plane they really need.