United Airlines will begin to replace its transatlantic 757-200 fleet with the Airbus A321XLR from 2024. The carrier announced a firm order for 50 of the aircraft on Tuesday. The new planes will “allow United to explore serving additional destinations in Europe from its East Coast hubs in Newark/New York and Washington.”
The new Airbus A321XLR aircraft is an ideal one-for-one replacement for the older, less-efficient aircraft currently operating between some of the most vital cities in our intercontinental network. In addition to strengthening our ability to fly more efficiently, the A321XLR’s range capabilities open potential new destinations to further develop our route network and provide customers with more options to travel the globe.– Andrew Nocella, United’s EVP & chief commercial officer
The 757-200 has been a transatlantic workhorse for the carrier, dating back to Continental Airlines introducing it to the Newark hub more than a decade ago. Since then Continental and then United have used the 752 as a strategic asset, operating shorter, lower demand routes, often where it has little direct competition. While occasionally stretching the range of the type, especially facing winter headwinds, the 752 proved a capable transatlantic workhorse. But the planes are also getting older and they need to be replaced. The A321XLR is the only aircraft on the market today that can serve that same route profile in an efficient and financially prudent manner.
United’s transatlantic portfolio will benefit from the opportunity to serve more markets with an inexpensive trip cost thanks to the significant fuel burn reduction the type brings compared to the 757-200. While the long-haul LCC competition is lower now than in the past couple years thanks to bankruptcies removing a few players, the market remains competitive. Getting more non-stop destinations into the route profile will provides competitive leverage for the carrier.
The timing of the delivery should also allow United to take the aircraft on schedule, without the delays other airlines have faced with A321neo family deliveries over the past year. Among other challenges, the “Airbus Cabin Flex” layout that removes the second pair of doors just ahead of the wing in favor of additional window exits has stymied delivery schedules of late. Those production problems are expected to clear in the coming year.
We are delighted to be re-United with our friends in Chicago and thank them for their trust. The selection of the A321XLR by the leadership of United Airlines is a ringing endorsement of the range, payload, and fuel efficiency that Airbus incorporated into this state-of-the-art aircraft.– Christian Scherer, Airbus Chief Commercial Officer
Delaying the A350 at United
The A321XLR order for United Airlines also affects the carrier’s pending A350 deliveries. Those frames are deferred once again, now not expected to join the fleet until 2027 at the earliest. Growth in United’s 777 operations, including adding 22 of the –300 type to the fleet, has pushed out need for the A350s.
The A350 order initially called for delivery in 2015. But that order was also placed well before the United merger with Continental. While the carrier has updated the A350 order in the interim, most notably changing from the –1000 to the –900 while adding 10 more frames to the backlog, bringing the order book to 45 planes. The 2027 timing of those deliveries could work well with United’s aging 777-200 fleet seeing some aircraft retired, though its 787 backlog, and potential new orders, could also help with that replacement need.
Killing off the NMA??
That United needed a 757-200 replacement is no secret. And for the past several years all signs pointed to a preference for an option from Boeing. But as the carrier waited for Boeing to bring its “NMA” 757/767 replacement to life the manufacturer failed to deliver. Facing uncertain market outlook and an ever-shrinking potential share as Airbus racked up more orders for the A321LR and XLR, the business case for a clean-sheet NMA option is hard to justify. And then the MAX crashes and grounding hit, further distracting Boeing’s attention from the new plane.
Read More: An NMA alternate: Boeing’s potential 767-X
United did choose the 737 MAX 10 to replace a portion of its 757-200 fleet. As reported in July, a subset of the MAX 10 order book will serve United’s premium transcon routes. The MAX 10 does not have the range for transatlantic nor for many Hawaii routes the 752 can meet, however, so it is not a viable option to fully replace the 757 fleet.
Boeing is also reported to be considering a reengined 767 variant to meet the fuel efficiency and range/capacity targets that the NMA seeks. Building for the 767 replacement market rather than the 757 market makes sense; demand is larger and the type more flexible in many ways. Still, it remains unclear that Boeing has a coherent plan for that market segment. The A330neo does address it to an extent, though the –900 comes in 100,000 pounds heavier and with significantly higher range than the 767s. It is too much plane for many missions. The improved engine efficiency erodes as the heavier plane flies on shorter stage length trips.
It is hard to kill off a product that never really existed. Still, as the number of airlines looking for 757 replacements continues to dwindle it is hard to see the NMA moving forward under the previously suggested specifications. This could free Boeing up to deliver a new 737 clean-sheet replacement sooner than previously expected.