Boeing 737 MAX Return To Service Could Impact United Airlines’ 757 Retirement Plans

United Airlines’ planned retirement of its Boeing 757s could be delayed because of the 737 MAX grounding. United Airlines has been working towards replacing its fleet of aging Boeing 757s but a United executive said this week that when this occurs is contingent on when the 737 MAX starts flying again.

United Airlines is attributing delays in retiring its Boeing 757s to the 737 MAX saga. Photo: Emirates EK27 via Wikimedia Commons.

United Airlines and their 737 MAXs

As reported in Reuters, Chief Operating Officer Andrew Nocella told journalists yesterday that United’s fleet of 76 Boeing 757s would be retired “as soon as possible” but it would depend on when the 737 MAX resumes flying. United Airlines has 14 Boeing 737 MAXs currently grounded by the FAA. Prior to the grounding, the airline was expecting to have 30 MAXs operating by the end of 2019. 

Whilst the timeline surrounding the 737 MAXs return to service constantly changes, last week Simple Flying reported that the FAA was tentatively expecting to give the all-clear in early to mid-December 2019. Making allowances for crew training and de-mothballing the grounded aircraft, the 737 MAX could be back in US skies as soon as January 2020. United Airlines currently has the 737 MAX scheduled to operate flights from January 6, 2020.

United has 14 Boeing 737 MAXs presently grounded by the FAA. Photo: United News Hub.

United has been looking to retire both its Boeing 757s and 767s. In total, there are still 130 of these older widebodied aircraft flying for United Airlines. The average age of United’s Boeing 757 fleet is 21.7 years. One is over 30 years old. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if the aircraft is well maintained. But as aircraft age, maintenance costs rise. In addition, passengers have quickly become accustomed to the quiet and comfort of newer aircraft like 787s and 777s, rendering a ride on a 30 year old 767 quite a comedown.

Replacing the United Boeing 757s

To counter this, United’s President Scott Kirby told employees in March 2019 that they were looking at buying 30-40 mid-size aircraft (with delivery to begin as soon as mid-2020) to replace both the Boeing 757 and 767.

This order would be in addition to existing orders for 214 various types of aircraft, including 45 Boeing 737 MAXs. United has also expressed interest in ordering either the A321XLR or the  Boeing 797 to fill the gap left by the retirement of their older widebodied aircraft. However, both the A321XLR and Boeing 797 are still only on the drawing boards, United Airlines was looking to the 737 MAXs to fill some of the gaps in capacity caused by the retirements of their Boeing 757s and 767s.

The 737 MAX isn’t really a replacement for the Boeing 757

And while the 737 MAX will go some way to filling these gaps, the MAX has neither the capacity or range of the Boeing 767. It should be viewed as a part of a suite of aircraft types to replace both the Boeing 757s and 767s, rather than an all in one solution. So is it fair to blame delays in retiring United’s old widebodied aircraft on delays in the 737 MAX program?

Simple Flying contacted United Airlines to ask about the role the 737 MAX has in replacing the Boeing 757. A United Airlines spokesperson declined to comment.

United planned to have 30 Boeing 737 MAXs flying be the end of 2019. Photo: United News Hub.

As Joanna Bailey reported in Simple Flying earlier this month, United is in a bit of a quandary with its immediate fleet composition in the short to medium term. The airline is just rolling out its first CRJ-550 flights and it has nearly 150 Boeing 737s on order – so it has the smaller sized aircraft end of its operations covered for the time being.

It also has a swag of A350s, 787s, and 777s on track to be delivered, covering the big jet end of its operations. But in terms of United’s aircraft orders, what’s going on in the mid-sized jet range? That mid- to long-range 250-280 seat passenger zone the Boeing 757 covered so well? 

Not a lot as it turns out.