United for 150 orders?

Update, June 5:

Here are a couple of news articles about this story:

Business Week

USA Today

The Daily Deal

Here is a 19-minute podcast on this story by Addison Schonland, Ernie Arvai, Erkan Pinar and us.

Original Post:

Be still my heart.

United Airlines requested RFPs from Airbus and Boeing for 150 airplanes, a mix of wide- and -narrow-body orders, including replacements for 97 Boeing 757s.

Why “be still my heart?” Because CEO Glenn Tilton has previously shown zero inclination to invest in United, preferring to shop the airline for a merger. United previously announced that long-standing orders for Airbus A320s would be canceled, forfeiting tens of millions in deposits–though we don’t believe these actually were canceled, not having shown up this way on the Airbus orders tally.

We were emailed, Where is United going to get this money? Surely UAL will demand and get backstop financing from the manufacturers, but with backlogs of most of the airplanes at both manufacturers equaling five or six years of production, one would hope by that time the financial markets will actually be freely accessible again.

Can UAL get airplanes before that backlog? Yes, some, will certainly be available. Orders for more than 50 787s have been canceled, although some have already been assigned to other customers to make up for delays of 15-36 months. The 25 canceled by RBS’s leasing unit are subject to a tug-of-war within Boeing as to their disposition. Production wants to absorb the positions to reduce delays. Sales wants to grab the positions to win campaigns precisely like that for United–as well as KLM-Air France and others that have yet to order the plane.

The ability of Boeing to offer early delivery positions for American Airlines, a holdover from its 1996 exclusive supplier contract with AA, enabled Boeing to sell the 787 over the Airbus A350, which could only offer positions late next decade. AA received 2012 delivery slots from Boeing for the 787-9 (now slated for 2013), a good six years ahead of the A350 positions. (Some in Airbus believe AA would not have ordered the A350 in any case, given the testy relations between AA and Airbus that exists going back to the CEO days of Robert Crandall.)

So how will UAL’s competition shape up?

For long-haul, UAL has been solidly Boeing. For US domestic, UAL has predominately been Airbus, 757 excepted.

UAL’s 747-400s are among the oldest produced and it was a launch customer for the 777-200 “A” model. The 767s are long-in-the-tooth and the 757s are aging. UA already is in the process of phasing out the 737 Classics in favor of the A319 and A320.

Here’s how we see a UAL fleet renewal:

VLA: A380 vs. 747-8I. We know that well before the economic crisis began in September that UAL officials visited Boeing and toured the Customer Experience Center to view the 787 and 748 interiors. No surprise there, and probably UA has done the same with the A380 and A350. UAL has said in the past it wasn’t very interested in the A380, but we believe there are some routes that work for UAL with an A380. Toyko Narita and London Heathrow, of course, are especially constrained. If UAL were to order the A380, would it be very many or might UA follow the Lufthansa example and order a mix of the fleet?

Or might UA follow the American Airlines example and go for smaller planes in favor of frequency and the ability to shift equipment as demand requires?
There is no tougher task than to find good routes for VLAs in a down market, while it is much easier to shift smaller jets around in off-season and add frequency if the slots are available in peak seasons.

Given the importance of NRT and LHR, we think UA will buy some VLAs. The A380 is, in our view, more technologically advanced and more spacious for passengers than the 748. A small number of A380s (fewer than 20) seems to make sense.

Mid-Size Twin-Aisle: Supplement the VLAs with the 777-300ER; the 787-1000 is too small even if it were built and the A350-1000 is too far down the pike, plus the 777 is already in UAL’s fleet. But: perhaps UA might simply lease the -300ER until the A350-1000 is available and proves whether it lives up to promises or Boeing builds a better mousetrap.The 777-300ER is clearly a superb airplane but one way or another, we see a replacement or a major upgrade as early as 2020. Why hook into a 25 year decision for something that will be less than 10 years old from your EIS?

We like the medium-term lease option. It gives UAL a lot of flexibility.

Update, June 5: We overlooked discussion about replacing the 767. This is an easy one: the 787 is sized right across from the 767; Airbus forfeited this market when it chose to straddle the 787 and 777.

Single-Aisle: The A319/320 is already the mainstay of UA’s domestic fleet. Add the A321 to replace the 757s for commonality.

5 Comments on “United for 150 orders?

  1. What’s a 787-1000? Is it coming before or after the 787-3? 🙂

    “A small number of A380s (fewer than 20) seems to make sense.”
    If it happens, I will be surprised. The rest of the possible orders seem to make sense.

    “testy relations between AA and Airbus that exists going back to the CEO days of Robert Crandall”
    They got quite strained after the A300 crash in 2001.

  2. ILFC have some interesting delivery slots available for A380 and SUH has to put up or shut up on his order in early 2010.
    I believe if Airbus end up putting winglets on the A32x, the 321 is going to look pretty attractive with the extra range.

  3. andrew, I believe ILFC would cancel or defer the A380s before doing a money losing deal with UA. SUH ordered those aircraft in the halcyon days when there was no end in sight to the boom times. Someone as savvy as Hazy would no doubt have an escape clause should he choose to terminate this order.

  4. Some interesting views regarding what UA might order. There are however a thing or two which I disagree on.

    1-Regarding LHR, UA has been pulling back from LHR quite a bit over the years. Either through completely pulling out of a route -such as JFK-LHR or downguaging planes – such as ORD-LHR.

    ORD-LHR went from 3x/B777’s to 3x/B763. That’s a serious downguage.

    Routes such as SFO/IAD-LHR-majour UA hubs (along with ORD) sees multiple flights and nothing larger than a B777.

    In fact, out of SFO, just a few years ago, one of UA’s two flights was with a B744..and that was downguaged to a B777.

    Thus I don’t see LHR as a reason for UA to need a VLA.

    NRT could use some VLA’s, however it would decrease flexibility a bit. Routes such as SFO, LAX and ORD-NRT could be supported by a big twin such as the B77W (or A350-1000).

    We’re already seeing yields to SYD deteriorate and I wouldn’t be surprised to see UA eventually pull out of the LAX-SYD route if yields further deteriorate (though SFO-SYD will certainly stay).

    Until recently, AA was the largest carrier in the world and doesn’t have a plane larger than the B77E. UA’s business model is quite like that of AA’s. Adding the B77W (or A350-1000) would be large enough for UA’s needs.

    UA ordered the A32X plane because it was the best plane on the market….Boeing simply didn’t have a plane which met UA’s needs and Airbus did…”kudos” to Airbus.

    That being said, the B73NG and B739ER’s can more than do the roles for most of their B752 fleet.

    If UA goes for one manufacturer, I think its going to be Boeing..but if they do wind up splitting, I think its going to be short-haul Airbus and long-haul Boeing.

    As mentioned, Airbus doesn’t have anything for the B763ER-their loss.

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