United Airlines eyes Airbus aircraft as plot thickens for Boeing

United Airlines currently operates three direct services from two hubs in the US to two destinations in South Africa. Picture: David Ritchie Independent Newspapers

United Airlines currently operates three direct services from two hubs in the US to two destinations in South Africa. Picture: David Ritchie Independent Newspapers

Published May 17, 2024


United Airlines will boost its transatlantic routes to Cape Town and Johannesburg from Newark in New York with Airbus fleet from 2026, as the American airliner adjusts its fleet plan amid worsening woes for main fleet supplier Boeing.

In an exclusive interview with Business Report yesterday, United Airlines’ regional director for Europe, India, Israel, Africa and Middle East, Thorsten Lettnin said the carrier was taking in long-standing orders from Airbus, which included the new A321 extra long range (XLR) aircraft.

Lettnin said some of these aircraft will service United Airlines’ transatlantic route, for which South Africa was an increasingly growing destination.

He revealed in his current visit that the number of US visitors to South Africa was now higher than it was in 2019, the last year before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have more Airbus coming into the fleet though we do not have Airbus going across the Atlantic, but by 2026 we will have some routes including to Marrakesh which we are starting soon,” he said.

“United currently operates the Boeing 777 on our Cape Town routes, and the Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner on the Johannesburg route.”

Lettnin confirmed that for the domestic market in the US, United Airlines was getting more of the Airbus A320neo series, and was increasingly using them.

“We are interested in the two sets of the Airbus A321 series,” he said.

“There is the A321neo which takes 200 passengers and has extra room in every seat for a trolley and carry-on bag in the bin overhead. The A321 XLR can do extra long flights from the USA across the Atlantic.”

The carrier currently operates three direct services from two hubs in the US to two destinations in South Africa.

These routes are New York Newark to Johannesburg, New York Newark to Cape Town, and Washington, DC, to Cape Town.

Routes in the continent include two destinations in Africa: Accra, in Ghana, and Lagos, in Nigeria.

From October, it will start operations to Marrakesh, in Morocco.

“What people are not aware of is that we have a long-standing and strong relationship with Airbus.” Lettnin said.

“We are flying the A320 series, even today on Thursday, our CEO announced the leasing of 35 A321neo and they are coming to our fleet in the 2026/27 year. We are leasing them as an addition as we are adjusting our fleet plan in 2024, though we do enjoy the relationship with Boeing.”

He admitted that United Airlines was aware of Qatar Airways’ imminent announcement of a foray into the southern African market, adding that United would be monitoring developments as it too was willing to take whatever opportunities available.

Qatar Airways this week announced the final stages of an equity investment in an airline in the southern part of Africa as a final piece of the equation to consolidate its organic growth in northern, western and eastern Africa.

Lettnin said the African continent in its entirety and the southern part were rich with opportunities that United Airlines were keen to take on as they arose.

“We cannot speculate what will happen next, but we certainly are looking with interest at the developments in the region,” he said.

“The Qatar announcement is something we are aware of but we will see what developments happen in the next three years. If opportunities come up we will certainly look into them.”

Lettnin’s working visit to South Africa is to commemorate United Airline's fifth anniversary of its foray into South Africa with a maiden flight from New York Newark to Cape Town.

“It is a milestone for us, I have come to thank and engage our customers and our teams on the ground and to particularly look at the investments we have made on the African continent,” he said.