US Airlines are moving to larger planes To solve operational difficulties

On Tuesday, United, based in Chicago, announced plans to purchase 110 aircraft from Boeing and Airbus. The decision was influenced by a shortage of air traffic controllers, crowded airspace, and limitations on runways and airport gates, which have led many airlines to reduce their number of flights. United is preparing for these issues to intensify by the end of the decade due to increasing demand. As a result, they are purchasing larger planes with more seats - a strategy that other airlines are also adopting.


United’s Chief Commercial Officer, Andrew Nocella, stated on Tuesday that the lack of new runways being built in the country necessitates the use of larger planes to meet growing demand. He emphasized that without larger planes, it would be impossible to meet travel demand. By 2027, the company plans to increase the average seats per departure in North America by over 40% compared to 2019. United’s recent order includes 50 Boeing 787-9 planes, which will replace many routes currently serviced by 767s. The 787 model can accommodate up to 129 more seats than the 767s in its fleet.


In addition, United is purchasing 60 Airbus A321neos, which can hold up to 30% more seats than some of Boeing’s 757s currently in use. Data from Airlines for America (A4A) shows that larger planes with more than 120 seats now make up about 68% of domestic U.S. scheduled flights, up from 58% before the pandemic. Consequently, airlines are offering 14% more seats per flight this quarter compared to the fourth quarter of 2019, despite a 9% reduction in scheduled flights. The shift towards larger planes is happening at a time when airlines are dealing with a shortage of air traffic controllers in the United States. Many controllers retired during the pandemic and training for new ones was halted.

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JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes stated last month that even if the Federal Aviation Administration doubled controller hiring, it would take five years for staffing levels to recover. As a result, JetBlue expects to operate fewer flights in the short to medium term and has warned of a hit to its third-quarter revenue. These challenges have led United to reduce daily flights from Newark - its largest global gateway. Frontier Airlines has also had to adjust its network due to controller issues. An industry-wide pilot shortage, exacerbated by pandemic layoffs and retirements, has also accelerated the trend towards larger planes, according to Addison Schonland of consulting firm AirInsight. Airlines find it more profitable to fly bigger planes even if it means offering fewer flight options for travelers. They can sell more seats per flight and operate with fewer planes and staff. United stated that its larger aircraft would increase the average seats per departure and result in lower per-seat costs. Schonland noted that airlines can increase their seat capacity by 10% with just a 2%-3% increase in fuel burn. The newer generation planes are also much more fuel-efficient, which should help reduce carbon emissions. The potential for higher revenue and greater cost efficiency are why American, Delta, and United have all now embraced Airbus’ A321 and are looking to retire Boeing’s 757s. “All the airlines are going in that direction,” Schonland said.

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