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United Airlines to buy 50 Airbus planes for European routes

(Airbus Artist Rendition)

United Airlines [NASDAQ: UAL] has made a firm order for 50 Airbus A321 extra-long-range aircraft to replace older, less efficient Boeing 757-200 aircraft, enabling a planned expansion of transatlantic routes from its East Coast hubs in Newark, New Jersey/New York and Washington Dulles International Airport.

United said late Tuesday it plans to begin taking delivery of the single-aisle A321XLR and introduce it into international service in 2024. It also will defer delivery of its order of widebody Airbus A350s until 2027 to better align with its operational needs.

United was scheduled to receive 45 A350-900 jetliners between late 2022 and 2027 to replace its fleet of Boeing 777-200s. Adjusting the delivery time of the A350s in favor of the A321s could mean less cargo capacity for freight forwarders, depending on what planes in its fleet it continues to use.

“In addition to strengthening our ability to fly more efficiently, the A321XLR’s range capabilities open potential new destinations to further develop our route network and provide customers with more options to travel the globe,” said Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer, in a Dec. 3 statement. 

Airbus launched the longer-range version of the A321 neo last summer. The increased fuel efficiency and range (4,700 nautical miles) of the next evolution A321 will allow service from the U.S. East Coast to a much larger selection of European destinations, according to Airbus.

The new aircraft lowers overall fuel consumption per seat by about 30% compared to previous generation aircraft, helping both the bottom line and United’s goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 50% relative to 2005 levels by 2050.

Combining the A321 neo’s two rear center fuel tanks into one adds fuel capacity and reduces structural weight. A321 neos list for about $129 million, but airlines typically negotiate discounts for large orders.

United currently operates 99 aircraft A320s.

Neither company indicated whether the A321XLR planes would be built at Airbus’ plant in Mobile, Alabama, in Europe or at some combination of locations. But Mobile offers potential supply chain savings and a relief valve for busy European plants, making it a likely production site for many, if not all, of the planes.

U.S. production would also avoid any U.S. tariffs on imported aircraft from Europe. Commercial aircraft made in Europe have been subject to a 10% tariff since mid-October after the U.S. received the green light from the World Trade Organization to impose tariffs on European Union goods as a remedy for years of illegal state subsidies to Airbus. The tariffs would significantly add to the cost of any aircraft but may not be a factor by the time United begins to take delivery if leaders are able to settle broader trade differences. Such a resolution may be easier with a Democrat in office as President Donald Trump has harped on the EU’s trade surplus, especially in autos, as a reason for following protectionist policies.

On Tuesday, the WTO rejected EU claims that it no longer provides subsidies to Airbus and therefore is not harming Boeing. A WTO compliance panel ruled that Boeing sales will continue to face market-share threats as Airbus continues to produce the jumbo A380, even though the company has decided to stop making the slow-selling plane. The decision means that the U.S. retains the right to impose tariffs on the EU.

As FreightWaves previously reported, U.S. airlines with near-time deliveries from Airbus could be on the hook for millions in tariffs unless Airbus eats some of the costs.

In June, American Airlines also ordered 50 A321XLRs, including the conversion of 30 previous American A321 neo production slots to the longer-range version.

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]