Is United Airlines inching closer to buying a 100-seat mainline aircraft?
United Airlines has long hinted at the possibility of adding a new small narrow-body aircraft to its mainline fleet, a move that would follow in the footsteps of Delta Air Lines with its Airbus A220s and Boeing 717s.
The Chicago-based carrier may finally be thinking seriously about adding a so-called “100-seater,” as the family of planes that includes the A220 and Embraer E-Jet-E2s are known despite often having more than 100 seats, to its fleet in the next five years.
“There will be a point when we switch from connectivity to gauge… that will be a great CASM-ex [unit costs excluding fuel and special items] tailwind for the company,” said Andrew Nocella, chief commercial officer of United, at a Cowen investor conference on Sept. 4.
Nocella was referring to the airline’s nearly two-year old growth plan focused on boosting domestic connections over, primarily, its hubs at Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Denver (DEN) and Houston Intercontinental (IAH). Much of that growth has been achieved by adding more 50-seat regional jets back to the United Express fleet to accelerate growth.
Small regional jets like the Bombardier CRJ200 and Embraer ERJ-145 are not known for their passenger comfort. They are also costly for airlines to operate, particularly when fuel prices are high.
While Nocella did not provide specifics, his comment indicates that United will be looking to replace those 50-seat jets with larger models in the next few years. With restrictions on the number of 76-seat jets that the carrier can have in its regional fleet expected to remain in place for at least medium term, more mainline aircraft are the only remaining option.
Enter the 100 seater.
The man who leads United’s domestic network planning team, Ankit Gupta, called both the A220 and E195-E2 potentially “great upgauges” from the carrier’s regional fleet of 76-seat Embraer 175s just two days after Nocella's comment. He was speaking at the Regional Airline Association’s annual convention in Nashville on Sept. 6.
But – and there always seems to be a but when it comes to United and small mainline aircraft – at large, congested airports where the carrier has its hubs, like Chicago and San Francisco (SFO), a larger narrow-body plane will always win out over a smaller one, added Gupta.
Though the argument could be made that United is flying 50- and 76-seat jets to these same airports that make a 100-seater the obvious winner, to paraphrase Gupta, in terms of gauge.
Another issue that United executives frequently raise is the cost of adding a new fleet type to its 591-aircraft strong narrow-body fleet.
"You can't buy [an aircraft] for just a couple of routes," United then-treasurer Gerry Laderman told FlightGlobal in 2018. "You should go to the best aircraft of the aircraft that you're operating a significant fleet size of because, in that situation, the cost of complexity does outweigh the benefit of having the absolute perfect aircraft for that mission."
In response to concerns over complexity, Embraer vice-president of sales and marketing Charlie Hillis said at RAA: "The big argument at the mainline is the cost of complexity of adding a new fleet type... [But] from an efficiency standpoint, the A220 is getting sold and we’re much more efficient than the A220."
United pilots may hold the key to the possible future of a 100-seater at the airline. Their contract includes a clause that allows United to add up to 70 more large regional jets to its feeder fleet – something management very much wants – in exchange for 88 new small mainline narrow-body aircraft.
The clause has been in the agreement between United and its pilots since 2012 but never enacted.
The bottom line is it remains a question whether United will ever add A220s or E195-E2s to its mainline fleet. There are arguments both for and against such a move.
But with United promising to continue to grow its mainline fleet — and opportunities to buy used Airbus A319s and Boeing 737-700s limited — a decision will eventually have to be made on the topic.