Delta Air Lines Returns To Former Playbook: Used Aircraft

Delta Air Lines has confirmed that it is adding 36 used aircraft to its fleet. Divided between 29 Boeing 737-900ERs and seven Airbus A350-900s, the aircraft acquisitions will augment the airline’s existing fleet and help the airline handle the recovery. All jets are expected to be delivered by the first quarter of 2022.

Delta A350
Delta has confirmed it will take on seven Airbus A350-900s. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Delta’s used aircraft acquisition

Delta has confirmed it has entered into agreements to add 29 used Boeing 737-900ERs and lease seven used Airbus A350-900s. Both are being acquired under separate transactions.

The Airbus A350-900s will be leased through AerCap. Meanwhile, the airline will purchase 27 of the 737-900ERs from funds managed by Castlelake. The remaining two will be financed by funds also managed by Castelake, though they are two separate transactions and subject to closing conditions.

All of the planes will enter Delta’s fleet by the first quarter of 2022. The airline plans on modifying the aircraft to meet the airline’s specifications before entering them into active service.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian stated the following on the acquisition:

“These aircraft are an investment in Delta’s future. As we look past the pandemic, Delta’s disciplined, innovative approach to fleet renewal positions us for growth as travel demand returns, while enhancing the customer experience and supporting our sustainability commitments.”

Delta 737-900ER
Delta Air Lines already flies 130 Boeing 737-900ERs. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

Delta’s widebody gap

Delta Air Lines retired 18 Boeing 777s in the crisis, and all of that lost capacity will be replaced by the Airbus A350-900s. Delta took over an order for 10 Airbus A350s from LATAM as part of the tie-up between the two carriers. In addition, these seven Airbus A350s coming to Delta are also likely former LATAM jets that the carrier no longer needs, essentially giving Delta an almost perfect replacement ratio for the Boeing 777s.

Delta has also steadily been retiring the Boeing 767-300ER fleet since the crisis hit. This exposed a significant gap in the carrier’s planned operations, as there is no clear replacement for those jets. With more Airbus A350s coming, plus the A330-900neos on order, it appears that Delta will be using those widebodies to replace existing Airbus A330 or Boeing 767-400ER operations to cover some of the Boeing 767-300ER retirements.

Delta Getty
The Airbus A350s will replace the Boeing 777s. Photo: Getty Images

Going back to its used aircraft playbook

In the aftermath of the merger with Northwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines knew it had a lot of work to do. One of the biggest needs the airline had was to take on more aircraft, particularly to replace some of the aging DC-9s it flew as well as power some of the expansion it wanted to do.

Without looking to drain the airline out of cash and raising large amounts of debt, the airline turned to the used aircraft market, where it could take unwanted aircraft for cheap and use them to its advantage.

Delta turned to the McDonnell Douglas MD family of aircraft. These jets, falling out of popularity around the world, were strategic acquisitions for Delta. Then came a great opportunity when Southwest Airlines took over AirTran. Southwest had 88 Boeing 717s it needed to find new homes for that it did not want to preserve from the merger, and Delta was willing to take the used jets on.

Delta 717
Delta’s 717s were also strategic used acquisitions. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Then, as Delta started to turn incredibly profitable and pay down its debt, it turned to purchase new aircraft. It placed orders for both Boeing 737-900ER and Airbus A321 aircraft. The airline also added more widebodies in the form of Airbus A330ceos, A330neos, and A350s.

Now, Delta finds itself in a somewhat similar predicament. It needs aircraft relatively quickly to cover for the aggressive aircraft retirements it had in 2020. The airline’s solution was the used aircraft market.

According to Delta, these planes are coming “at attractive prices” due to the crisis. This is not surprising, given that few airlines outside of the United States and Europe are looking to take on more jets at this time.

Delta Air Lines
The Airbus A350 is one of Delta’s international flagship aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

Both the 737-900ER and A350-900 will stay in Delta’s fleet for quite some time, so the planes also fit in with Delta’s plan to stick with a more simplified fleet as it comes out of the crisis.

Currently, Delta flies 15 Airbus A350-900s with 20 jets on order. When these seven aircraft are delivered, and after all 20 enter Delta’s fleet, the carrier will be flying 42 Airbus A350-900s.

Meanwhile, Delta also flies 130 Boeing 737-900ERs. The last of these jets were delivered only in 2019. With 29 more planes coming, Delta will fly 159 737-900ERs in total. In terms of fleet type, by shell count, the 737-900ER fleet is the largest and will remain the largest in Delta’s fleet when these deliveries are complete.

Delta 737-900ER
The Boeing 737-900ER is one of Delta’s domestic backbones. Photo: Getty Images

Used aircraft can be smart acquisitions. They can come at lower costs than new jets, be inducted into service faster, and airlines already have familiarity with the type, making it easier for the airline to induct the planes.

Delta is taking a very strategic turn with the acquisition of new aircraft. While it is not as splashy as United’s 270-aircraft order, centered around correcting the airline’s gauge problems, or Alaska’s plan to take on more Boeing 737 MAX aircraft to simplify the carrier’s fleet, it is part of Delta’s strategy to keep from having too complex a fleet.

What do you make of Delta’s used aircraft purchase? Let us know in the comments!