CHICAGO,ILLINOIS — According to sources familiar with the matter, United Airlines is close to placing an order for more than 100 widebody aircraft as it evaluates offers for both the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350. If materializes, it will be one of the largest-ever long-haul airplane order at a time in history. It's a part of Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby's long-term perspective to grow United's fleet with the latest generation of aircraft a little over a year after the airline purchased 270 narrowbody jets.

The order would be announced by the end of this year, Kirby said during his attendance at a training session with the airlines' pilots. Insiders from the meeting confirmed the info. United, Airbus, and Boeing declined to comment on the matter. The timing and size of the order have not been finalized and are subject to change.

The Chicago-based airline has 128 widebody Boeing jets that are at least 20 years old. The maintenance costs typically increase as the planes age. United only has seven Dreamliners on order, and has repeatedly postponed a deal for 45 Airbus A350 aircraft due.

The potential new order carries high stakes for Boeing and Airbus. Demand for pricey twin-aisle jets collapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic and is slowly recovering as borders reopen and business travelers return to the skies.

The rival planemakers have been tussling on various order campaigns as travel reopens, with Airbus coming out ahead in significant sales contests, including a major Qantas order last December and a 292 jet single-aisle order from Chinese carriers worth $37 billion in the summer.

The potential United deal would rank among the largest widebody purchases, and winning it could give Boeing a much-needed boost over its European rival. For Airbus, it would be a key endorsement of the A350 in the U.S. market as the company seeks to boost sales of a freighter version of the plane.

United has been in talks with the planemakers for months as it hones its fleet plans.

The airline operates an all-Boeing widebody fleet, and despite the Airbus order already on the books, United has been reluctant to introduce other models that would boost maintenance and pilot-training costs. Boeing is likely to make the bid attractive by offering some of its 120 already-built Dreamliners if United is looking for a quick fleet makeover.

Airbus holds leverage as well. The European planemaker could refashion the original A350 terms and provide speedier deliveries of brand-new jets as Boeing recovers from a lengthy delivery halt for its 787. And Airbus could dangle another perk: accelerating handovers of sought-after A321neo planes that United ordered last year.

United has said little about its fleet plans since Airline Weekly reported in August that it was exploring a widebody order.

The airline is determining "what we want to do on the cadence of retirement" for its oldest planes like the Boeing 777 and 767, Gerry Laderman, United’s chief financial officer, told a Cowen conference last month. "But there’s nothing specific to announce right now."

via Bloomberg