United retires old aircraft in face of recession

7 Apr 2009 by Mark Caswell

United Airlines is reacting to the current economic crisis by cutting routes, frequencies, and retiring over 120 of its aircraft, including the whole of its B737 fleet.

Graham Atkinson, executive vice president at United and president of the airline’s Mileage Plus frequent flyer programme said, “The current conditions are too brutal to keep on flying capacity that isn’t needed. We have got to size the airline to the new reality.”

The reductions in capacity have been across the domestic market in the US, but have targeted 120 B737 aircraft, Atkinson says,

“The good news is that these aircraft were not in the best of internal condition, and so we have improved the environmental footprint, improved the customer experience and lowered the cost [for the airline] because they are expensive to maintain.”

United is also retiring six of its oldest B747 aircraft from international routes, and is cutting capital expenditure, but Atkinson says that two important areas have been left untouched: “customer-facing projects and IT infrastructure.”

The retirement of the aircraft isn’t, however, a sign that United is looking to order new aircraft.

“Our fleet is 14 years average age and it’s coming down by virtue of retiring the B737 fleet,” says Atkinson. “We know we will need to look seriously at an aircraft order. At the moment the interiors looks great, but there are fuel savings from flying new aircraft, so there’s a trade [between] capital outlay versus operating costs.”

Atkinson says that United is interested in both the B787 and the A350 aircraft “and also the long range B777 aircraft. For the domestic narrow-bodied fleet, however, Atkinson says “We will likely not be interested in a narrow-bodied replacement until the new ones come along in 2015 and 2016.”

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Report by Tom Otley

  • For reviews of United's new business and first class cabins, click here.
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