United’s fleet retrofit will take longer than expected, execs say

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United Airlines will miss its target of 2025 to retrofit its entire fleet with new, modernized cabins, airline executives said Wednesday.

In comments during the airline’s first-quarter earnings call with investors, chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella blamed ongoing supply chain constraints.

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“The supply challenges across the board, whether it be [in-flight entertainment], chips, seats and many other things are just more challenging than they’ve ever really been,” Nocella said. “The total time to convert all the aircraft is going to be longer than we expected, unfortunately, probably by a year or two.”

United unveiled its new cabin interior in 2021 alongside an order for 270 narrow-body aircraft, saying it would retrofit its entire fleet of existing mainline aircraft. The new cabins feature individual in-flight entertainment screens with Bluetooth connectivity for headphones, larger overhead lockers and a new LED lighting scheme.

While airline executives initially suggested that the retrofit program would be completed by 2025, supply chain constraints — which have also affected new aircraft deliveries — caused that target to slip.

In December, during an announcement for a separate order of widebody aircraft, United CEO Scott Kirby told TPG that the retrofit program had started out slower than expected. Still, he had said it should be largely finished by the middle of the decade.

“Not much has been done so far,” Kirby said at the time. “It’s on track to be, if not 100% complete by 2025, substantially completed by 2025.”

“There have been some supply chain [issues], but we’ve mostly gotten those wrestled to the ground,” he added.

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December’s comments were the first time United suggested the project would likely slip beyond 2025. During Wednesday’s conference call, Nocella said that despite the added year or two, customers would see “material progress” over the coming years as an increasing share of the fleet gets converted to the new interior.

Read more: With Boeing order, United reveals and doubles down on its plan for the next decade

“The odds of getting on an aircraft with the United signature interior [are] going to go up rapidly,” he said. “It’s just the tail that’s going to take a little bit longer to get done.”

Overall, United posted a net loss of $194 million for the quarter, compared to a loss of $1.4 billion in the first quarter of last year. Delta Air Lines, which reported earnings last week, similarly posted a loss.

The first quarter tends to be the toughest revenue season for airlines, with a slow travel period carrying over from the holidays until spring.

During the call, United executives noted a slight dip in business travel demand alongside larger macroeconomic turbulence.

“The United network is more reliant on business traffic that is not fully recovered to pre-pandemic volumes,” Nocella said. “The United global network and East Coast trends are simply better aligned to March through October, post-pandemic, where leisure and premium leisure compensates for less traditional business traffic.”

Business travel demand in the coming quarters was higher than in 2022, Nocella said. He noted that demand fell in the wake of recent banking crises but that it had since recovered.

Still, despite upbeat demand projections, particularly for international leisure and business travel — which United has more relative exposure to than other airlines — Kirby said the airline was preparing for a broader economic slump.

“It seems clear that the macro risks are higher today than they were even a few months ago,” Kirby said. “Our base case, therefore, remains a mild recession or soft landing, which is consistent with what we’re seeing in our bookings.”

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