What Happened To Delta Air Lines’ Boeing 787 Order?

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At one point, Delta Air Lines had an order for 18 Boeing 787s, but the airline never ordered the type itself. Rather, Delta inherited this order from its merger with Northwest Airlines. However, after a review of the airline’s fleet plans, Delta decided to ax the 787 order back in 2016.

Boeing 787
Delta once had an order for 18 Boeing 787-8s. Photo: Boeing

Why Northwest Airlines ordered the 787

In 2005, Northwest Airlines placed an order for 18 Boeing 787 Dreamliners worth about $2.2 billion. At the time, it was announced that Northwest would become the first North American airline operating the 787– a big distinction for the carrier.

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According to a Boeing release archived at defense-aerospace.com, the 787s would replace the Boeing 747-200s and McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30s on international long-haul routes. At the time, it was expected the 787s would be about 50% more fuel-efficient than those aging planes. The first of the 787-8s were expected at Northwest in 2008.

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Northwest Airlines (NWA) was expected to be the first North American operator of the 787. Photo: Boeing

Delta inherits the order

At the time of the merger, the only other Boeing widebody in Northwest’s fleet was the 747-400. Narrowbody-wise, Northwest flew some Boeing 757s and legacy McDonnell Douglas DC-9s. Other than that, the rest of Northwest’s planes were Airbus, including A320 family jets and A330s.

This did not mesh well with Delta’s fleet, which included McDonnell Douglas MD-80 and MD-90s, Boeing 767s, 777s, and 737s. The only common type was the Boeing 757-200.

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Delta A330 plane
Delta inherited the A330s from Northwest Airlines. Photo: Getty Images

Along with the merger with Northwest, Delta inherited outstanding aircraft orders. This included a few Airbus A319s and A320s, and the Boeing 787s. However, by 2009, after the merger, the Boeing 787 program had been delayed, and there was a grand total of zero 787s in Northwest’s fleet.

Delta kept the 787s on order, awaiting any information from Boeing on when the first 787s would arrive. In 2010, however, Boeing and Delta reached an agreement to defer the 787-8s delivery to 2020.

Delta examines its fleet, orders Airbus planes

In 2013, Delta Air Lines placed an order for 10 Airbus A330-300s. These A330-300s would complement the 21 A330-300s inherited from Northwest. However, the new A330s were the enhanced 242-metric ton variant.

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Then, in 2014, Delta moved even further towards the Airbus portfolio of widebody aircraft. The carrier ordered 50 new widebody jets, split evenly between A350-900s and A330-900neos. At this point, it was all but guaranteed that the 787 deal was dead.

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When Delta ordered the A350s, it was a pretty done deal that the 787s were unnecessary and would be canceled– eventually. Photo: Getty Images

Delta did not need additional complexity. The A350s would go to replace the Boeing 747-400s on international long-haul routes while the A330neos would be a natural complement to the existing A330ceos and replace some 767s.

Adding another type, the 787s, would have increased the airline’s fleet complexity. Already, with the Airbus orders Delta would have Airbus A330s, Airbus A350s, Boeing 767s, and Boeing 777s in its fleet. For a brief period of time, Delta also flew both the A350 and the 747s.

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Delta inherited the 747-400s from Northwest and had retired the type by 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Plus, the order was only for 18 firm 787s– a small number. With deferral out to 2020, the aircraft did not fit any particular need for Delta Air Lines. So, finally, in 2016, Delta canceled the 787 order. At the time, in a press release, Greg May, Senior Vice President – Supply Chain Management and Fleet stated the following:

“Delta is one of the world’s largest operators of Boeing aircraft and our valued partnership with Boeing will remain strong as we safely and comfortably serve our customers across the world every day. This business decision is consistent with Delta’s fleet strategy to prudently address our widebody aircraft needs.”

What if the 787s had been delivered on time?

If the 787s had entered Northwest’s fleet in 2008, there is a high likelihood that Delta would have been a Boeing 787 operator today. It would make zero sense for Delta to retire the 787s if they were only a year or two old by the time of the merger. Plus, Northwest held options for more 787s, and it would not have been too difficult to work with Boeing to take on larger 787-9s to replace the 747-400s.

A330neo
If Delta had taken the 787s, it could have led to a very different looking airline today. Photo: Airbus

However, that did not happen. The 787s delays gave Delta an opening to consider its future fleet plans. And, for the airline, the A330neos fit the bill perfectly. Plus, in a sense, Delta got lucky by canceling the 787 order. The first one was slated to arrive just this year, which would have been a nightmare scenario amid the current crisis.

Do you think Delta made the right call by canceling its Boeing 787 order? Let us know in the comments!

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