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United Airlines Doubles Down on Post-Pandemic Growth through Radical Expansion of Fleet

Airline adds some 270 Boeing and Airbus aircraft marking largest order by a single carrier in ten years

United Airlines put in orders for 270 new Boeing and Airbus aircraft – the largest combined order in the airline’s history and the biggest by an individual carrier in the last decade. Tabbed as the “United Next” plan the equipment commitment is expected have a transformational effect on the customer experience and could increase the total seat capacity per domestic departure by a third.  The large aircraft order takes into account significantly lower carbon emissions per seat.

The airline company expects this new order alone to be able to lower the airline’s total carbon emissions per seat up to 15 percent in the next five years. Specifically, the 737 MAX and A321neo aircraft offer better overall range and environmental performance with their new, more fuel-efficient engines and improved aerodynamics. Improvements come from new engines, lighter-weight carbon composite airframes and aerodynamic innovations like natural laminar flow that reduces drag.

United, in line with sustainability measures by other major airlines, such as Singapore Airlines and JetBlue, has set an ambitious goal to be 100 percent green by eliminating its greenhouse gas emissions completely by 2050, and without relying on traditional carbon offsets.

“Our United Next vision will revolutionize the experience of flying United as we accelerate our business to meet a resurgence in air travel,” said United CEO Scott Kirby in a statement about the expansion. “By adding and upgrading this many aircraft so quickly with our new signature interiors, we’ll combine friendly, helpful service with the best experience in the sky, all across our premier global network. At the same time, this move underscores the critical role United plays in fueling the broader U.S. economy and traveler spending and commerce.”

United’s New Fleet: A Preview

As for its widening fleet, United (when combined with the current order book) expects to introduce more than 500 new, narrow-body aircraft: 40 in 2022, 138 in 2023 and as many as 350 in 2024 and beyond. That means in 2023 alone, United’s fleet will, on average, add about one new narrow-body aircraft every three days.

The airline’s new aircraft order – 50 737 MAX 8s, 150 737 MAX 10s and 70 A321neos – will come with a new signature interior that includes seat-back entertainment in every seat, larger overhead bins for every passenger’s carry-on bag and the industry’s fastest available in-flight WiFi, as well as a bright look-and-feel with LED lighting. The airline expects to fly the first 737 MAX 8 with the signature interior this summer and to begin flying the 737 MAX 10 and the Airbus A321neo in early 2023.

In addition to what’s new, United intends to upgrade all of its existing mainline, narrow-body planes to these standards by 2025. The process will significantly boost United’s total number of mainline daily departures and available seats across the airline’s North American network, as well as the number of premium seats. Specifically, United expects it will have on average 53 premium seats per North American departure by 2026, an increase of about 75 percent over 2019, outshining, for the time, competitor airlines in North America. The new orders of narrow-body jets will help the airline increase its total seats per departure for North American flights by 30 seats, or almost 30 percent, by 2026.

United’s 737 MAX 8 has 16 United Firstseats and 54 Economy Plus seats – more than double the number of extra leg room seats offered by competing airlines on similar-sized aircraft, it claims. The 737 MAX 10 – the largest member of the MAX family – makes up the majority of United’s new order and will include 20 United Firstseats and 64 Economy Plus seats. The new A321neo aircraft are expected to have premium seat counts similar to that of the 737 MAX 10.

“We’ll deliver a better, more consistent experience,” said Andrew Nocella, United’s EVP and Chief Commercial Officer. “While some airlines are reducing the number of economy seats with extra leg room, United will offer the most premium seats in North America, taking a different, more customer-friendly approach. Our new, signature interior creates a more consistent product across our mainline fleet — with a focus on the amenities that customers value most like seat back screens, fast WiFi and extra storage.”

United’s New Aircraft Amenities: The Download

United’s inflight entertainment component is contained in the 13-inch high-definition screens embedded in every first class seat and 10-inch HD screens built into every United Economy seat on the 737 MAX. The experience includes free access to more than 2,800 selections including movies, TV shows and international selections, as well as audio playlists, podcasts, and games. Customers also can watch documentaries and live concerts through United’s exclusive collaboration with the Coda Collection. In addition, every seat on these aircraft has access to electrical power and USB charge ports, as well as accessibility features for people with hearing or visual disabilities.

To keep with what customers want, each new 737 MAX and A321neo will have the industry’s fastest available in-flight WiFi for streaming video and other online services. The aircraft also will have Bluetooth technology throughout for easy connections between wireless headphones and the seatback entertainment screens.

For carry-on needs, the new aircraft with sport significantly larger overhead bins allowing for a carry-on bag option for every person onboard. United expects that the availability of these larger bins will help alleviate gate crowding and anxiety, reduce the number of gate-checked bags and decrease the time it takes to board.

Next Stop Newark

And while United is busy ramping up destination delivery, it is invested in making Newark a formidable gateway with a full schedule of flights out of EWR by November 2021 (when the FAA slot waiver period ends). The airline remains the leading carrier from Newark, which is also United’s largest global gateway with 430 daily flights that include international destinations like Johannesburg, Tel Aviv, Mumbai and Hong Kong.

In the coming months, United is aiming to make all Newark departures happen on dual-class aircraft, including the 737 MAX and the airline’s new, dual-class 50-seat CRJ-550 jet. The airline hopes to grow domestic and international capacity from Newark for years to come by replacing smaller mainline jets with larger aircraft, while at the same time driving international growth, by connecting more customers from U.S. cities to Newark/NYC for their international flights.

To make way for this growth, United is in the midst of a significant facility expansion and upgrade project at Newark. The work includes renovating an existing United Club location in Terminal C, building a completely new lounge in Terminal C that is capable of accommodating 500 travelers and offering panoramic views of Manhattan, as well as building a brand new United Club in Terminal A where United will operate from 12 new gates.