During Alaska Airlines’ third-quarter earnings call, the airline’s executives hinted at a forthcoming fleet shakeup at the carrier. Lumbered with a large fleet of ex-Virgin America A320s, the airline seems keen to get back to being an all-Boeing fleet. Could a further order for the 737 MAX be on the cards at Alaska?
The A320 is uneconomic
Since its acquisition of Virgin America, Alaska Airlines has been lumped with a very mixed fleet. The large number of Airbus A320 family aircraft made it the fifth-largest US airline, but also brought with it a move away from the streamlined efficiency of operating an all-Boeing fleet.
Now, it seems the airline is coming to a crossroads in its fleet matrix. Speaking during today’s earnings call, Chief Financial Officer Shane Tackett commented,
“Over the next three years, we will see the expiration of 42 of our 61 Airbus leases, which represents an opportunity to either extend those leases at far lower rates to what we pay today, or possibly replace them with larger, more efficient aircraft.”
According to data from Planespotters.net, Alaska’s A320s average 9.8 years old. It also has a small fleet of 10 A321neos. All of its A319s are now retired and 30 of its 49 A320s are listed as being parked. Meanwhile, all the neos are in service.
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President of the airline Ben Minicucci didn’t rule out keeping the Airbus aircraft in the fleet, but made it clear that all other options were being explored. He said,
“We love all of our airplanes, but the A320s are uneconomic relative to others. It’s a logical time, as we’re resizing our fleet and getting it to best match demand, to really figure out how we get the best economic aircraft on the field.
“With the A320s, we can either shrink that fleet, we can extend leases, or we can replace them with something better.”
The move to an all-Boeing fleet would be significant, with so many Airbus still in the stable. Nevertheless, it’s been talked about in the past. Most recently, 240 of Alaska Airlines’ A320 pilots were retrained by the airline to fly its 737s instead.
Will the MAX replace the A320 fleet?
Alaska Airlines is a proud supporter of the 737 MAX. Since placing its order for 37 737 MAX 8s in 2012, not one has been removed from Boeing’s order book. In fact, there is evidence that at least part of the order has been upsized to the 737 MAX 9. In an interview earlier this year, CEO Brad Tilden expressed his confidence in the aircraft, saying that the airline was ‘anxious to fly them’ as soon as the go-ahead was given.
During the earnings call, when pressed on whether we could expect a large order for the 737 MAX in coming months, Tackett refused to be led on a definitive answer. However, he did note that the team was “very anxious to be able to get out of some of these pretty onerous leases that we have on the A320s and get into better aircraft.”
In recent weeks, rumors have been swirling about whether Boeing is discussing the sale of some of its ‘white tail’ 737 MAXs to airlines, and in particular to Alaska Airlines. President Ben Minicucci confirmed that some discussions had taken place, but stated that the MAX would need to be recertified before it was a realistic option for Alaska. He said,
“We’re talking to both Boeing and Airbus; we’re talking to a leasing company … Of course, the MAX needs to be recertified for that to be a viable candidate airplane, and everything we’re hearing from Boeing is positive on that front.”
Would fewer A320s and more MAXs make sense for Alaska? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.