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United Airlines could retire its Boeing 767s due to coronavirus, analyst says

Sept. 02, 2020
6 min read
United 767-300ER
United Airlines could retire its Boeing 767s due to coronavirus, analyst says
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The Boeing 767 may be going the way of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 family and other older jets in U.S. airline fleets due to the coronavirus pandemic.

American Airlines has retired its last 17 767-300ERs and Delta Air Lines is retiring seven of its 56 767-300ERs to date due the crisis. Now, analysts at Cowen expect United Airlines to follow suit retiring its 767 fleet.

"We believe United is likely to retire its 767 fleet, in line with American," wrote Cowen analyst Helane Becker in a report on Aug. 27. The Chicago-based carrier could replace the fleet with Boeing 787s — particularly 787-9s — that carry more passengers and offer more range all at a lower operating cost.

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United Airlines Boeing 767-400 ER Extended Range with 2x CF6-80 engines aircraft landing at Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport AMS EHAM in The Netherlands, the Dutch capital. The airplane has registration N66057 and its type is exactly Boeing 767-424(ER) . UAL / UA is a major American airline headquartered in Chicago, Illinois connects Amsterdam with ChicagoO'Hare, Houston Intercontinental, Newark, Washington Dulles and seasonal to San Francisco (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A United Boeing 767-400ER landing at Amsterdam Schiphol. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

United has already placed its 16 Boeing 767-400ERs — plus many of its 38 767-300ERs — in long-term storage pending a better view of the travel recovery from the pandemic. That recovery is not expected to come quickly, especially for long-haul international travel. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) trade group that represents the global industry now forecasts a four-year recovery timeframe.

While Becker does not offer additional knowledge of the internal decision making at United, her forecast adds weight to ongoing speculation that the airline could remove its 767 fleet due to the pandemic.

"We’ll continue to evaluate our fleet mix to ensure we’re flying the right aircraft for the routes we are operating," United spokesperson Rachael Rivas told TPG. No retirement decisions have been made, she added.

Related: United’s premium Boeing 757s, some 767s going to ‘long-term storage’

Retiring the 767 would benefit United. Such a decision would shrink the number of aircraft types in its fleet — reducing both maintenance and staffing expenses — while at the same time saving on things like fuel expenses by flying more fuel-efficient newer jets like the 787.

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It would also likely accelerate the removal of United's 74 Boeing 757s. The 757 and 767 are from the same era and share some maintenance and training commonality that favors a dual retirement.

However, such a move would be a loss for passengers. Many of United's 767-300ERs are configured in a premium-heavy layout known as "high-J" with 46 Polaris business-class seats instead of the standard 30 seats. This configuration would disappear if the jets were retired.

The 767 also sports the popular 2-3-2 seating layout in economy that reduces the number of middle seats onboard. All of United's 787s are configured with a 3-3-3 layout in economy.

Related: First Look at United’s Wild New 46-Polaris-Seat 767-300ER

The Polaris cabin on a United high-J 767. Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy.
The Polaris cabin on a United high-J 767. (Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy)

Cowen expects U.S. airlines to retire between 800 and 1,000 planes as a result of the pandemic. This estimate includes jets that Alaska Airlines, American and Delta have already officially "retired," as well as ones that carriers like Allegiant Air, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and United are expected to remove.

U.S. airlines have retired or place in long-term storage some 284 jets to date in the crisis, according to a count by analysts at Raymond James on Aug. 30.

The retirements are expected to boost fuel efficiency across the industry, with Delta and Southwest likely to benefit the most, wrote Becker. Delta and Southwest both have the most new jets on order to replace older models.

The contraction comes as the number of flyers remains down about 70% during the last week of August compared to 2019, according to data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A). Many expect the recovery to remain slow through the fall.

Related: Global air travel unlikely to recover until 2024 as COVID remains ‘issue’ in US, elsewhere

"9/11 killed the [Boeing] 727 and maybe Corona will kill the 767?" tweeted former JetBlue executive Marty St. George in March. Since then, the number of global operators has shrunk dramatically with Air Canada, American and WestJet retiring their entire 767 fleets.

United is flying a few 767s in September, Cirium schedules show. However, flights are limited to ones between Newark Liberty (EWR) and both its Houston Bush Intercontinental (IAH) and Los Angeles (LAX) hubs.

"We are definitely trying to keep our powder dry on the rest of the fleet until we have better visibility of what's going on," United CEO Scott Kirby told analysts and investors during an earnings call in July. "I hesitate to make a decision today to retire a fleet when we just don't need to."

Related: United Airlines worries travel recovery will stall until there’s a COVID vaccine

Updated with comment from United.

Featured image by First United Airlines 767-300ER in new livery. (Photo courtesy of United Airlines)