United Airlines ponders an earlier retirement for out-of-favor 747s

February 23, 2016

United Continental Holdings is considering parking its Boeing 747 jumbo jetliner fleet ahead of schedule to make way for newer, more-efficient twin-engine aircraft on its longest routes.

The carrier’s 22 747-400s might be retired as early as 2018, according to a memo last week to the company’s pilots from Howard Attarian, senior vice president of United Airlines flight operations. That would be an accelerated timetable, as then-Chief Financial Officer John Rainey in April said United likely would keep its four-engine aircraft at least until expensive maintenance work set for 2020 requires a decision on their future.

If United drops its biggest jet — its jumbos seat 374 passengers in standard configuration — the airline would accelerate deliveries of other long-haul aircraft, according to the memo. United spokesman Charlie Hobart confirmed the Chicago-based airline is considering the early retirement of the 747s but wouldn’t discuss the memo itself.

“As you know, this is an aging fleet that many operators are beginning to exit from service, and as this happens support for the aircraft, especially in our spokes, gets more difficult,” Attarian said in the memo.

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Replacement jets

The third-largest U.S. carrier has ordered 35 of the largest jets in Airbus Group’s A350 family, which seat 350 people. It could also add more Boeing 777-300ERs, with a capacity for 396 travelers, after ordering the first of the jets last year as a jumbo replacement.

Boeing is eager to notch 777 sales to fill its order book for 2018 and 2019 as it begins transitioning to an upgraded model, said Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst with Teal Group.

“You’re going to get a very good deal on 777-300ERs at that point,” he said.

Nicknamed “Queen of the Skies,” the 747 was the first wide-body aircraft and brought international travel to the mass consumer market with its 1970 debut. Carriers around the world have retired their jumbo fleets this decade and shifted to long-range twin-engine aircraft to save on fuel and maintenance costs. Delta Air Lines Inc. has been trimming its fleet in recent years and as of Dec. 31 had just nine left. United’s 22 fly out of Chicago and San Francisco.

United sees ending the jumbo’s run in Chicago in February 2017, with the rest of the fleet based in San Francisco, according to the memo. The document doesn’t make clear what jets would replace the aircraft. Brian Znotins, vice president of network, told investors in August that it would bring on Airbus Group A350s and variations of Boeing 777s and 787s as it retires the 747.

News that United may retire its 747 fleet sooner than anticipated was earlier reported by aviation blogger and journalist Brian Sumers.

© 2016, Bloomberg News

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