MIAMI – United Airlines is searching for a longer term replacement for its fleet of Boeing 767 aircraft, sparking a fierce competition between Airbus and Boeing to win a new order for 50+ widebody airplanes.

The aircraft in question are primarily 35 Boeing 767-300ERs and 16 767-400ERs, all of which are at least 14 years old and with an average age of more than 18 years. While these aircraft are paid for with low capital costs, they are also fuel-inefficient against the Airbus A330ceo, let alone the A330neo and Boeing 787 that many competitors are beginning to fly.

Moreover, as these planes approach the two-decade mark in age, they are fast approaching another round of heavy maintenance checks that will cause maintenance costs to balloon. So replacement makes a lot of sense, but despite heavy rumors, surrounding (in part) United’s order for Airbus A350s, being used as a cudgel to solve this issue, there has not been substantial movement.

So let’s take a look at United’s various options for replacing its 767 fleet.

Understanding the route profile of United’s 767 fleet(s)

The 767-300ERs are split between two configurations, one with 214 seats (30J / 49Y+ / 135Y) and an older one with 183 seats (6F / 26J / 71 Y+ / 80 Y). The 767-400ERs meanwhile are all configured with 242 seats (39J / 63Y+ / 140Y).

I took a look at a random Thursday in July (July 12, 2017, to be exact) to get a sense of the mission profile of these two sub fleets for United. The results are displayed in the route maps below.

United 767-300ER Route Map -- Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
United 767-300ER Route Map — Maps generated by the
Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
United 767-400ER Route Map -- Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
United 767-400ER Route Map — Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Starting with the 767-300ER, the route profile is mostly a mix of secondary European destinations from Chicago O’Hare and Newark with a couple of heavy premium cabin routes mixed in (London Heathrow and Geneva from Chicago and Newark respectively). It also serves as one of the primary aircraft for United’s deep South American routes.

The 767-400ER’s route profile is pretty similar again with a primary base at Newark. Here the destinations skew more leisure and volume heavy, and the same is true at Dulles with the exception of Geneva.

You also have the oddball widebody route from Newark to San Juan (as much for cargo as for passenger volume) and a token Hawaii route from the East Coast for each airline, but overall, the route profiles are exceedingly similar; the 767-300ER’s average flight spans 3,638 miles and lasts 7 hours and 52 minutes while the 767-400ER’s average flight covers 3,735 miles and lasts about 11 minutes longer (or 8 hours and 3 minutes).

Other than seat capacity, these are more or less the same aircraft flying the same mission.

The simplest answer – buy more 787s (or A330neos)

This leads pretty naturally to the simplest solution for United, which is to double down on pre-merger Continental’s plan to replace both of its 767 fleets (767-200ER and 767-400ER) with the Boeing 787.

United already operates 12 787-8s seating 219 passengers (36J / 70Y+ / 113Y) as well as 20 787-9s seating 252 passengers (48J / 88Y+ / 116Y) and 4 more of the 787-9 on order. United also has 14 787-10s on order with delivery beginning next year.  The 787-8 size wise is a perfect replacement for the 767-300ER and the 787-9 is a good replacement (10 seats larger) for the 767-400ER.

But truthfully United can just order 50 more 787-9s and replace the entire fleet. One of the challenges for the 787-8 in terms of sales in the last couple of years has been that the 787-9 almost turned out to be a better performer than Boeing had anticipated. In fact, the 787-9 functionally has more or less the same trip cost as the 787-8 on most comparable missions, which means that you functionally get the extra 30-35 seats and thus extra revenue potential of the 787-9 for “free” (they have no marginal costs).

Yes, the 252 seats of the 787-9 are a big step up from the 214 currently on the 767-300ER, but it will come at a lower trip cost and a much lower per-seat cost, allowing United to profitably deploy the 787-9 as a replacement. If there are routes where the 787-9 is simply too much plane (perhaps current routes served with the 183 seat version), United can simply switch to its internationally configured 757-200s on those select routes.

The A330neo family would also be a contender in theory, but United just ruled out the A330neo in comments made to Flightglobal last month. There would be a certain logic to switching the A350-1000 order to A330neos, but United clearly isn’t a fan of the A330-900neo as a 767 replacement.

Interestingly, the A330-800neo doesn’t even seem to appear on United’s radar. Under the previous United regime (pre-Scott Kirby) the A330ceo at dirt cheap prices may have also been a possibility, but Scott Kirby’s approach to fleet strategy does not tilt as much towards used and old generation aircraft. So if United is going to replace the 767 with currently launched widebodies, then the 787-8 and 787-9 are the likely pathways.

The blockbuster solution – kick off the MOM with 150+ orders

Where it gets interesting is if United is willing to wait a bit and hold on to the 767s for a few more years. If United can hold off for another 5-7 years, it could very well sweep the leg and combine the 51 767s with 21 757-300s, 56 757-200s, and a few of the 737-900ERs that are flying inappropriate missions to place a replacement + growth order for 150-200 of Boeing’s middle of market (MOM) plane.

While the MOM is still very ill-defined, the current “consensus” (and I use that term lightly) is that Boeing would offer 2-3 variants with the smallest starting at 190-210 seats, and at least one variant in the 240-260 seat range. The current consensus seems to be that the MOM will be a twin-aisle jet to allow for faster turnaround times.

For United, the MOM would be an awesome force, allowing it to bulk up important domestic routes and fly more of the long and thin international routes that are the provenance of the 757 and 767.

The MOM would also unlock more of Latin America from Houston and even Newark, as well as more from Chicago to secondary Europe. Depending on the range of the aircraft, you could even see some service from San Francisco to East Asia. The risk with the MOM is that by waiting for the middle of next decade, United exposes itself to some risk in case of a fuel price spike, and will see many of the 767s age over 25 years in service as it waits.

Still, launching the MOM with what would assuredly be excellent launch pricing may be a better financial move than paying a premium for 787s that won’t be delivered that much earlier.