737 MAX-9 Crisis Pushes United Airlines Towards Airbus A321neo

By Spyros Georgilidakis | January 29, 2024

The United Airlines CEO recently made an unpublicized trip to France, for Airbus talks about an A321neo order, to CANCEL a 737 MAX-10 order.

Some years ago, an airline in the United States placed a large order for the Airbus A320. The airline had been a loyal Boeing customer before this. So as a result, the American aircraft manufacturer decided to develop an updated, modernized 737 generation.

United was a very early A320 customer. Photo: Daniel Shapiro

The above may seem like a reference to American Airlines and Boeing’s decision to go ahead with the 737 MAX. But actually, it happened in 1992, involving a United Airlines order for the then-new A320 family. It was a key factor in Boeing’s decision to launch the 737NG.

A long time has passed since. United merged with Continental (a loyal Boeing customer) and has continued buying Boeing single and twin-aisle aircraft. Interestingly, it never bought the legacy A321. The first time that United looked at an A321neo, it did so out of necessity.

737 MAX-9 Crisis Pushes United Airlines Towards Airbus A321neo
Image: Airbus

United And Existing A321neo Orders

In 2019, United ordered 50 A321XLR aircraft, the long-range A321neo variant. With Boeing delaying and then canceling the launch of its Next Midsize Airplane (NMA), United needed a replacement for its 757-200 fleet. Then in 2021, United added 70 A321neo orders to its Airbus narrowbody fleet plans.

But before all this, United was a launch customer for the Boeing 737 MAX-10, placing its first orders for it in 2017. The type is key to United’s future. After additional orders and option conversions, the airline currently expects to take delivery of 277 MAX-10s.

At least one 737 MAX-10 in a United livery has already flown, in a NASA project to measure SAF emissions. Photo: NASA

Or does it? A few days ago, United CEO Scott Kirby said “…the MAX 9 grounding is probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for us”. He also said that the airline has to seriously consider the possibility that the 737 MAX-10 won’t be part of its fleet.

And it now seems that Kirby made these statements near the time he flew to Toulouse, France, for talks with Airbus. The goal of these talks was to see if there is a way for the Airbus A321neo to replace the 737 MAX-10 in the United fleet.

737 MAX-9 Crisis Pushes United Airlines Towards Airbus A321neo
Photo: Airbus

United, The MAX-10, The A321neo, And Timing

Currently, United has more MAX-10 than A321neo orders: 277 MAX-10s Vs 130 A321neos & 50 A321XLRs. Also, in terms of delivery timing, the airline expected MAX-10 orders to overtake A321neo orders. United has already taken delivery of 4 of those 130 A321neos.

But these deliveries will take until 2032 to be completed. Other industry sources have confirmed that United and Airbus are indeed talking about more A321neo orders. But for these jets to replace 737 MAX-10s, Airbus must deliver them sooner than they first planned.

737 MAX-9 Crisis Pushes United Airlines Towards Airbus A321neo
Photo: Airbus

This isn’t easy. Airbus has reportedly been asking other A321neo customers if they would like to defer some deliveries, to prioritize United. However, it is not clear if this relates to new A321neo orders or if the goal is simply to deliver already-ordered jets faster.

Airbus has been comfortably outselling Boeing, in single-aisle aircraft. But the European manufacturer has also lost some orders, because of overly long delivery slots. This is why Airbus has been working with its suppliers to accelerate A320/A321neo production.

Image: Airbus

Some Old Widebody Orders…

Going back to United, it seems that its quest for A321neo delivery slots may impact an old, stalled order for 45 (initially 35) A350s. This is a very old order, dating back to 2010, i.e. before United merged with Continental. United has been postponing this order for years.

Now, Reuters reports that Airbus could tie up a new A321neo United order, with a resolution to the A350 issue. The problem here is that United ordered 100 additional Boeing 787s in 2022, with 100 more as options.

Photo: N509FZ, CC BY-SA 4.0

This means that United won’t really need the A350 until it starts replacing its 777s. The airline has a fleet of 22 777-300ERs that are just over 6 years old, on average. It also has 74 much older (25 years old, on average) 777-200s. However, United recently committed to keeping even these jets around for at least the end of this decade. So it won’t need Airbus A350s until 2030 or so.

In any case, it will be interesting to see what kind of order United will have to make, to convince Airbus to negotiate delivery slots away from other A321neo customers. Unfortunately for Boeing, even if it resolves its 737-9 production issues soon, its rate of production AND certification delays of the MAX-10 and MAX-7, could have knock-on effects elsewhere.


1 comment

  • Former Boeing managers and engineers have most recently uttered blunt and crucifying condemnation as to the airworthiness of the 737 Max series advising nobody should fly on them ever regardless of all the public apologies and promises by Boeing to clean up its act and not to prioritize profits over safety. Airbus 10, Boeing 0. By its own negligence and incompetence and lack of proper oversight of quality control issues with subcontractors like Spirit, a temporary worldwide crisis in air travel may now be inevitable as public concerns accelerate to the point where a lot of current 737 Max jets lie parked empty and too unprofitable to own and maintain and maybe destined for the junkyard whilst Airbus happily fills in the gap.I wish I owned Airbus stocks right now!

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