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United’s aircraft announcement points to its net zero strategy
Last week, United Airlines announced a major aircraft order with Boeing. In addition to pointing to the airline’s expansion strategy, it also tells us a lot about United’s sustainability goals. In this piece, we take a closer look.
On December 13th, United Airlines unveiled what it says is the largest widebody order by a U.S. carrier in commercial aviation history: 100 Boeing 787 Dreamliners with options to purchase 100 more.
United expects to take delivery of the new widebody planes between 2024 and 2032 and can choose among the 787-8, 9 or 10 models, providing flexibility to support a wide range of routes.
United also exercised options to purchase 44 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft for delivery between 2024 and 2026 - consistent with the United Next 2026 capacity plan - and ordered 56 more MAX aircraft for delivery between 2027 and 2028.
The airline now expects to take delivery of about 700 new narrow and wide-body aircraft by the end of 2032, including an average of more than two every week in 2023 and more than three every week in 2024.
United cited sustainability factors in its official announcement, saying that approximately 100 planes of the new widebody order are expected to replace older Boeing 767 and Boeing 777 aircraft. When all 767 aircraft are removed from the United fleet by 2030, it will result in an up to an expected 25% decrease in carbon emissions per seat for the new planes.
United's order reinforces its SAF investments
From a sustainability perspective, this large order, in fact, tells us a lot about United’s net zero strategy.
At a regional and commuter level, the airline has made some bets on next-generation aircraft technology. Archer’s eVTOL aircraft, for example, will be used as air taxis into United’s hubs - starting with Newark Liberty International Airport.
United is also an investor in both Heart Aerospace, which is developing a 30-seater hybrid-electric aircraft, and in ZeroAvia, which is building hydrogen-electric powertrains to be retrofitted onto existing aircraft.
For ZeroAvia, United, for example, has its eye on the company’s (ZA2000-RJ) engine. United believes that this could be used to retrofit United Express aircraft as early as 2028, including on one of the workhorses of US regional aviation - the CRJ-550.
However, beyond that, United clearly intends to use technology that works with the aircraft of today rather than looks to projects such as Rolls Royce or Airbus’s hydrogen aircraft research.
After all, the 737-Max and 787-Dreamliner aircraft that United will be receiving in 2032 will almost certainly still be flying in 2040 and quite possibly in 2050 as well.
And for those aircraft, the only decarbonization solution is drop-in fuels.
That, in turn, explains United’s extensive SAF investments.
For example, as long ago as 2015, the airline funded Fulcrum Bioenergy, which seeks to turn household trash into SAF. Earlier this year, Fulcrum got the go-ahead for a facility in Nevada, which will process 175,000 tons of landfill garbage into 11 million gallons of synthetic fuel oil each year.
United also has an agreement with SAF giant Neste for a supply of fuel for flights out of Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, the airline has invested in Ithaca, NY, company Dimensional Energy, which seeks to turn CO2 into fuel.
And last month, it even became the first US airline to invest in a biofuel refinery when it announced that United Airlines Ventures (UAV) could invest as much as $37.5 million into NEXT Renewable Fuels (NEXT) as long as the company meets certain milestone targets.
This comes as NEXT is planning for a refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, with expected production beginning in 2026.
United is one of 20+ airlines that has committed to science-based targets, and CEO Scott Kirby is one of the most fluent and knowledgeable airline CEOs when it comes to sustainability issues (see his interview on Shashank Nigam’s Sustainability in the Air podcast).
As a result, United’s commitment to net zero is serious, as evidenced by its extensive investment portfolio. However, with United continuing to order Boeing aircraft into the next decade, the main focus is on further developing the technology that already exists now rather than assuming that hydrogen-powered aircraft will be taking us across the Atlantic anytime soon.
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