United Resumes Heavy Maintenance

As the vaccine rollout begins to gather pace, United plans to resume heavy maintenance and engine overhauls.
Credit: United

United Airlines had some good news for the MRO market in its fourth-quarter earnings, revealing that it was resuming heavy maintenance and engine overhaul work in preparation for a vaccine-led recovery.

In the three months to December 31, the airline invested $2 million in recovery preparation, which primarily included spending on engine and airframe maintenance “to prepare for the efficient operations ramp up as air travel demand returns.”

Nonetheless, United’s final-quarter spending on maintenance materials and outside repairs was still 58% lower than previous year, while its full-year spending of $858 million stood at roughly half the level of 2019.

Furthermore, chief executive Scott Kirby noted that there is still considerable uncertainty around the timing of the recovery, although he is expecting it to come.

“None of us know even today exactly when this is going to be over,” he said, adding: “While our base case is that the turning point is coming a little bit later than maybe some others think, that turning point is coming.”

United is hoping it can pick up market share on long-haul routes when the recovery commences due to to factors such as widebody retirements at competitors and Norwegian’s decision to quit the long-haul market.

“We're counting the number of 747s--and A380s that have been pointed at the United States that are no longer in the flying fleets of many airlines around the globe,” noted chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella.

United, in contrast, has kept large sections of its fleet ready to fly at a moment’s notice via an extensive active storage program.

With regular flight activity reduced, United’s mechanics were freed up from normal overnight and non-routine work to take on active-storage programs.

Its Washington Dulles International station, a widebody specialist that performs a range of Boeing 767 and 777 work as well as 787 post-delivery modifications, had about 30 active-storage widebodies at its peak, in addition to routine overnights.

To find out more about United’s storage strategy, pick up Engine Yearbook 2021.

Alex Derber

Alex Derber, a UK-based aviation journalist, is editor of the Engine Yearbook and a contributor to Aviation Week and Inside MRO.