United Airlines unveiled a mammoth order for 270 new narrowbody planes Tuesday while promising to offer seatback entertainment on nearly all of its fleet, drawing new battle lines for how the country's largest airlines will duke it out for passengers' wallets as travel rebounds.
The Chicago-based airline's record-setting order had been in the works for months and was widely expected by the time it was unveiled ahead of Tuesday's “United Next” industry event. Fresh off a pandemic that decimated the airline industry, it's a major turning point: It's the biggest aircraft order in company history and the largest among U.S. airlines in more than a decade.
United's order calls for 50 Boeing 737 MAX 8s, 150 larger 737 MAX-10s, and another 70 Airbus A321neos. The first of those orders will begin flying for United later this summer, while the bulk of the planes will start flying sometime in 2023 and beyond.
United's New Gameplan
This is much bigger than just a bunch of new planes. It marks a drastically different strategy as United emerges from the crisis of the last year.
All those new deliveries will be equipped with in-flight entertainment screens at every seat and other interior improvements like bigger overhead storage bins and faster in-flight Wi-Fi, but United is going even further. By refurbishing older planes with screens and retiring others, United vowed that 99% of its mainline fleet – planes operated by United and not a smaller regional partner carrier – would sport seatback entertainment by 2025.
That's a 180 for an airline that, until recently, had been going the opposite direction. While Delta doubled down on seatback screens in the name of a premium passenger experience, both United and American had focused on trimming costs, cramming more seats on planes while pulling out seatback screens.
But two things have changed. First, the airline got a new CEO: Scott Kirby is clearly charting a new course for the airline. And then there was the pandemic, which has reshaped everything in travel and the airline industry.
While United and other carriers are bullish about business travelers returning to the skies sooner than expected, everyday vacationers and leisure travelers are driving travel's rebound right now. And that means United isn't just competing with Delta and American for passengers – they're also duking it out with the likes of Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant.
Legacy airlines like United can't hope to compete with those airlines on fare prices. That left United with one option: Make the in-flight experience better. And that's just what they're trying to do.
“The bet we’re making today is that travelers care about the product … that we can get customers to choose United Airlines because they like the product,” Kirby said Tuesday, according to The Points Guy's David Slotnick.
United is deadset on turning things around. And not just with a boatload of brand new planes to ferry passengers as travel resumes, but with a new focus on improving passenger experience rather than simply cutting costs and lowering fares.
Lead photo courtesy of United Airlines