The US Airline Fleet That Made It Out Intact: United Airlines

United Airlines has maintained a pretty intact fleet. The carrier was the only one of the big three not to withdraw hundreds of planes from its fleet. While some may question the move, the airline’s executives are not very concerned about its large fleet and continue to highlight its flexibility. All in all, United’s fleet is pretty intact from where it started heading into the crisis.

United Boeing 757
Save for a few Boeing 757s, United Airlines has not made any major fleet retirements. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The United Airlines fleet

Heading into 2021, United Airlines had a fleet consisting of the following aircraft:

  • 80 Airbus A319s
  • 97 Airbus A320s
  • 41 Boeing 737-700s
  • 141 Boeing 737-800s
  • 148 Boeing 737-900s and -900ERs
  • 14 Boeing 737 MAX 9s
  • 53 Boeing 757-200s
  • 21 Boeing 757-300s
  • 38 Boeing 767-300ERs
  • 16 Boeing 767-400ERs
  • 19 Boeing 777-200s
  • 55 Boeing 777-200ERs
  • 20 Boeing 777-300ERs
  • 12 Boeing 787-8s
  • 25 Boeing 787-9s
  • 11 Boeing 787-10s
United Boeing 787
United Airlines is the only US carrier to operate all three variants of the Boeing 787. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

According to data from Planespotters.net, as of February 7th, United had the following aircraft in its fleet:

  • 90 Airbus A319s
  • 97 Airbus A320s
  • 51 Boeing 737-700s
  • 141 Boeing 737-800s
  • 148 Boeing 737-900s and -900ERs
  • 27 Boeing 737 MAX 9s
  • 40 Boeing 757-200s
  • 21 Boeing 757-300ERs
  • 38 Boeing 767-300ERs
  • 16 Boeing 767-400ERs
  • 74 Boeing 777-200s and -200ERs
  • 22 Boeing 777-300ERs
  • 12 Boeing 787-8s
  • 35 Boeing 787-9s
  • 13 Boeing 787-10s

If you’re looking for retirements, direct your attention to the 757-200 fleet, where United Airlines retired 13 Pratt & Whitney powered 757s that were one of the oldest in the fleet. All other fleet changes were augmentations, meaning United Airlines added new planes in 2020.

Boeing 767
Even the Boeing 767 fleet, which many other airlines retired, stayed intact at United. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

United’s executives are not concerned

Gerry Laderman, Chief Financial Officer at United Airlines, stated the following on United’s fleet during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call:

“I’ll start on just the fleet plan and point out that we want to maintain as much flexibility as we can on the fleet, so that aircraft are there to support the demand. The only decision we’ve made on retiring aircraft are a subset of our 757-200 fleet. The ones – there are about 13 of them that were powered by Pratt & Whitney engines that are among the oldest in the fleet – that for a number of reasons decided those are retiring, which has led to the charge we took in the quarter. The rest of the fleet, the mainline fleet in particular, will maintain flexibility.”

United Boeing 757
Only 13 older United 757-200s exited the fleet. Photo: Getty Images

For reference, over the last year, plenty of airlines went on a retirement spree. Delta Air Lines took out over 200 planes from its fleet in 2020, getting rid of entire fleet types like the MD family of jets, the Boeing 777s, and then a few ad hoc aircraft retirements.

American Airlines took out its Boeing 757s, 767s, Embraer E190s, and Airbus A330s. It also retired several Boeing 737-800s from its fleet.

Southwest Airlines also began retiring some more of its older Boeing 737-700s, especially after the MAX grounding was lifted. The airline saw a plan to use those jets in commercial service materialize.

And, Alaska Airlines took out all ten of its Airbus A319s went from a fleet of 51 Airbus A320s down to only 21 jets.

Each carrier sought to accelerate fleet modernization and simplification plans. United Airlines, however, bucked that trend.

What did United do with all of its excess planes?

At the start of the crisis, United Airlines parked a vast majority of its fleet. It maintained a skeleton operation as demand all but evaporated, and a handful of passengers were stepping onboard a plane or even booking tickets.

United Parked PLanes
United Airlines parked most of its planes as it awaited a rise in demand so it could reactivate them. Photo: Getty Images

Airlines started making fleet-related decisions around this time and began retiring older jets while restructuring their order books. United did some of it, but it mostly just stayed intact and decided to wait it out.

Then, in the second half of the year, the airline decided that having those planes sitting idle was pointless, so the airline started redeploying aircraft where capacity was necessary.

This included the launch of brand new flights, such as from Chicago to Tel Aviv and Chicago to Delhi. On the medium-haul and short-haul front, United announced a huge point-to-point expansion to Florida.

On the international front, United Airlines added new routes from Los Angeles to San Jose, Costa Rica, and San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Belize City got a new connection to Denver, as did San Jose, Costa Rica. From Washington-Dulles, United added a nonstop to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. This also complemented expanded service between the US and Mexico, which was one of the strongest markets for international tourism.

United Airbus A319
United redeployed a lot of capacity on short-haul and medium-haul international routes. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Andrew Nocella, Chief Commercial Officer at United, added the following on the airline’s earnings call:

“When you make fleet changes in this business, it’s easy to retire aircraft but it’s a lot harder to induct new ones and replace them for a million different reasons. And so, when we look out at the world, we see airlines that made a lot of different moves and they generally go back to bigger aircraft we have retired. We’ve clearly kept our flexibility open on this front, as we’ve said over and over again. And, from a planning perspective, one of the moves we’ve made is to move some of these aircraft into new markets. For example, we announced New York to Johannesburg and other service to Africa, and more service to India, as we plan to make sure that we don’t necessarily have to put all of our capacity back into the original core markets we had in 2019.”

What about when demand returns?

United’s fleet will continue to grow in 2021. The airline’s 2021 deliveries are expected to total 24 Boeing 737 MAXs, 11 Boeing 787s, and four Embraer E175s bound for its regional fleet.

United 737 mAX Getty
The MAX jets will help grow United’s domestic network gauge. Photo: Getty Images

That is just for 2021, though note that delivery schedules are fluid. So, when demand does return, United’s fleet will have grown, and it can add back capacity wherever necessary while also serving its new routes. In addition, some routes may no longer need service in the future.

For example, some of United’s recent new routes, such as Los Angeles to San Jose, might not get the same traffic and demand in two years that it is getting now as LA-area travelers and some connecting passengers decide to splurge on a long-haul trip to Auckland or Tokyo or Singapore, so United does not need to continue to serve that route, and it can instead upgauge a flight from, say, Houston to San Jose and send passengers to Costa Rica via a connection in Texas. United is working on increasing its aircraft gauge, as it knows it has fallen behind a bit.

United planes
United is bullish on the return of international demand, so it keeps as many of its widebodies to serve those routes in the future. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

At the end of the day, United Airlines is confident in its fleet and believes it will be the right size to capture demand when it returns – especially international demand. Some other airlines may end up being a little too small until new planes enter the fleet to capture the demand adequately. So, a big showdown is gearing up for whether airlines will be at the right capacity levels heading into a sustained recovery.

However, just because an airline has fewer planes does not mean that the airline has less capacity. American Airlines says it can reach 2019 capacity levels with 10% fewer planes due to an increase in gauge.

Are you glad to see United avoid major aircraft retirements in 2020? Let us know in the comments!

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