Boeing Has Almost Cleared Its Whitetail Aircraft Backlog

Boeing is on track to clear its backlog of unwanted whitetail aircraft. In recent years, airlines canceled and delayed orders for planes already built, contributing to the stockpile. Now, as airlines start to rebuild their fleets, Boeing is busy clearing its whitetail backlog.

Boeing has almost reduced its stockpile of whitetail aircraft. Photo: Boeing

Hundreds of unwanted Boeing planes have found new homes

A whitetail refers to a plane built but not delivered to a buyer. This can happen because a manufacturer might build a plane on spec, figuring an airline will take it, but that fails to happen. Parked without livery, the unwanted plane frequently features a white tail.

Alternatively, an airline orders aircraft but circumstances force the airline to delay or cancel the order. But production has already begun. The worldwide grounding of the 737 MAX is an example of this. Boeing has recently dealt with a spate of deferrals and cancellations due to the long-running 737 MAX grounding coupled with the global travel downturn.

According to Reuters, the MAX grounding saw Boeing left with around 200 unwanted 737 MAXs. But it wasn’t just MAXs Boeing got stuck with. Among other aircraft types, Boeing has a number of 787 whitetails on its hands. For a time, the aircraft manufacturer even had four spare 747-8 freighters. Atlas Air eventually took the last of the iconic jumbo jets.

Boeing doesn’t like to talk about how many whitetails it has or had. But late last year, Reuters reported the manufacturer had approximately 450 unwanted planes on its hands – worth about US$16 billion at list prices.

Production problems with the 787 Dreamliners also contributed to the whitetail backlog. The downturn in travel demand owing to COVID-19 saw several airlines decline to pick up Dreamliners once manufactured.

Whitetail aircraft are so named because they often literally have whitetails. Photo: Boeing

Boeing had a lot of 737 MAX whitetails on their hands

But MAXs constituted the bulk of the whitetail backlog at Boeing. However, with the MAX cleared to fly again in most jurisdictions, airlines are ordering planes and picking up deferred deliveries. As a result, Boeing is now offloading the formerly unwanted planes.

By the middle of this year, reports emerged that Boeing had less than ten 737 MAX whitetails remaining. Getting a handle on who bought the whitetails is tricky. There have been a substantial number of MAX orders since the grounding was lifted. Some of those orders combined new planes and former white tails.

In June, Spyros Georgilidakis reported in Mentour Pilot that a United Airlines order for 25 MAXs included taking whitetails. Alaska Airlines took nine whitetails in an order for 23 new MAXs. Canada’s Flair Airlines took 13 MAX whitetails. SMBC, an aircraft leasing company, also took some MAX whitetails. Earlier this year, an order from Dallas-based Southwest Airlines also helped Boeing drawn down its whitetail inventory.

737 MAXs made up much of the whitetail backlog at Boeing. Photo: Boeing

An expensive inventory issue for Boeing resolves

There are benefits for both Boeing and the customer airline in taking whitetails. Boeing gets expensive inventory off its hands. The airline gets aircraft quicker than usual. With the domestic airline industry rebounding well in markets like the United States, speedy delivery can enable airlines to capitalize on the rebound.

On the downside, taking whitetails is frequently a substitute for taking aircraft further down the track. Whether Boeing delivers 10 MAXs in the form of whitetails or 10 factory fresh MAXs in three years, the outcome is the same, 10 planes get delivered. There is no additional production and no additional revenue for Boeing. But that may be a small price to pay for Boeing to whittle down their whitetail backlog.