United to buy 270 planes (with modern amenities) — and bring 5,000 jobs to Newark

‘United Next’ initiative involves adding 500 new planes by 2026, all with seat-back entertainment, Wi-Fi, expanded carry-on space

United Airlines will unveil its “United Next” plan Tuesday in Newark — an initiative that will lead to the purchase of 270 new Boeing and Airbus aircraft and is expected to transform the passenger experience while significantly lowering carbon emissions.

Even more, the program is expected to bring up to 5,000 union jobs to the state by 2026 — a job expansion program the airline said will add 25,000 jobs around the country.

United officials said the plan will not necessarily bring additional flights to Newark Liberty International Airport due to runway restrictions, but it will bring larger planes. Those planes, United officials say, eventually will all have increased amenities, including:

  • Seat-back entertainment in every seat;
  • Larger overhead bins for every passenger’s carry-on bag;
  • The industry’s fastest available in-flight WiFi;
  • A power outlet at every seat;
  • New LED lighting that will be most noticeable during early morning and late-afternoon flights.

The order for the 270 aircraft is the largest combined order in the airline’s history and the biggest by an individual carrier in the last decade, United officials said. Combined with planes already on order, the airline said it expects to add 500 new planes by 2026 — retiring 300 in the process. The remaining planes in the fleet will be retrofitted to add the amenities.

For those familiar with the planes, United’s new aircraft order will be:

  • 50 737 MAX 8s;
  • 150 737 MAX 10s;
  • 70 A321neos.

The order will significantly boost the number of premium seats on flights out of Newark and across the country. Airline officials said they expect to have, on average, 53 premium seats per North American departure by 2026, an increase of about 75% over 2019.

“Our United Next vision will revolutionize the experience of flying United as we accelerate our business to meet a resurgence in air travel,” United CEO Scott Kirby said.

“By adding and upgrading this many aircraft so quickly with our new signature interiors, we’ll combine friendly, helpful service with the best experience in the sky, all across our premier global network. At the same time, this move underscores the critical role United plays in fueling the broader U.S. economy — we expect the addition of these new aircraft will have a significant economic impact on the communities we serve in terms of job creation, traveler spending and commerce.”

Like all airlines, United was hurt substantially during the global pandemic.

Kirby, in a pre-event call Monday, said the early and proactive steps the airline took with its employees, and as a whole, are enabling United to respond quickly.

And while airline travel has not approached pre-pandemic levels, United officials said that day will happen sooner than many expect. Leisure travel, they said, is increasing rapidly — and that is making travelers more comfortable traveling for business.

United officials did not give specific numbers, but they said business travel — which was off nearly 90% a few weeks ago — is now off by a number “in the 60s,” they said. United officials said they also expect an incredible increase in trans-Atlantic travel next summer — having essentially lost two years of vacation travel.

The moves the airline is taking Tuesday are in anticipation of that rush and more.

United officials said the new planes will be delivered quickly, with 40 coming in 2022 and 138 in 2023 — meaning United’s fleet will, on average, add about one new narrow-body aircraft every three days in 2023 alone.

These planes will be good for the environment, too.

Adding these new 737 MAX and Airbus A321neo aircraft means United will replace older, smaller mainline jets and at least 200 single-class regional jets with larger aircraft, which the airline expects will lead to significant sustainability benefits compared with older planes: an expected 11% overall improvement in fuel efficiency and an expected 17-20% lower carbon emission per seat compared to older planes.

Kirby said the airline is eager for the return to the air — and feels the steps the airline took before and during the pandemic have put it in a position to succeed.

“In April of last year, we were the only airline that had a belief that business travel and international would ultimately return in full,” he said. “That belief was validated (and) strengthened as we went through the crisis. Today, I would go beyond saying confidence. Business travel is going to come back at 100%. And everything we see, every week, makes us even more certain that business travel and international travel are ultimately going to come back at 100%.”

Kirby said United was the only major airline in North America that did not retire aircraft going through the pandemic.

“We kept our fleet intact, we kept our employees intact, we kept our pilots intact, so we’d be able to participate 100% of the recovery when it ultimately happened,” he said.