Southwest Airlines has been eyeing a replacement for its aging fleet of 737-700s for some time. While the natural pick would likely be the MAX 7, the airline is contemplating breaking with tradition and is inspecting the potential for the Airbus A220. CEO Gary Kelly spoke this week about the latest on this important decision.
Southwest still undecided on MAX 7 or A220
It’s no big secret that Southwest is, for the first time in history, eyeing a non-Boeing aircraft for its future fleet needs. But in all the mess of COVID and 737 MAX grounding, attention on the issue seems to have slipped away. At an Aviation Week webinar yesterday, CEO Gary Kelly noted that he is still weighing his options.
“We already said last year that we were going to look very carefully and closely at the A220. It’s a good airplane, there’s a fair number of orders out there, so I think it’s going to be a successful program.”
For Southwest, a long-time 737-only operator, the smaller Boeing narrowbody should be its go-to replacement for its small airplane needs. However, he was clear that the A220 is absolutely under consideration. As with anything, it will likely come down to cost.
“We need that smaller airplane … so it’s either the MAX 7 or the A220 at this point. If we get what we need on the MAX, then it makes it more difficult for the A220. But I think Boeing and Airbus both understand that that’s a very important airplane for us.”
What does Southwest want from its small airplane?
The reason Southwest is searching for a replacement small plane is due to its aging fleet of 737-700s. While it’s -800s are young, all under 10 years of age, the 700s are not. Kelly stated that these aircraft are a huge benefit for the airline, and that he’s keen to find the best replacement possible.
“We already have a serious commitment to a 143 seater plane with the -700; that’s the majority of our fleet. And then of course the -800 is 175 seats. And one of these days, I don’t know, a decade in the future 20 years in the future. Maybe the mix of smaller versus larger in our fleet would be 50/50. And, you know it’s a guess at this point, but the point of that background is that we must have a replacement for the -700.”
Indeed, Southwest has some 493 Boeing 737-700s in its fleet, according to Planespotters.net, with just 21 having taken their retirement so far. Of the remainder, the average age is 16.4 years, although a number in the fleet, more than 40 to be precise, are over the age of 20. Southwest would like to see the back of these planes, but not without a successor waiting in the wings.
“It is an important component of our fleet, and our route strategy. We still have a very significant and dominant presence in short haul markets in the US. And I see that going forward.”
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Which would be better for Southwest?
In terms of comparison, there are pros and cons with both options on the table. The A220, on paper, is a superior aircraft. It’s the right size to replace the 737-700s, with around 130 – 145 seats. The Boeing, on the other hand, has upsized with the new generation, and at a minimum, is likely to have 150 seats. If Southwest is keen to match the capacity of the 143 seater -700, the A220 is better sized.
There are also efficiency gains to be made. The MTOW of the A220-300 is just short of 70 tons, similar to the -700 but around 10 tons lighter than the MAX 7. The added weight of the MAX 7 means it’s likely to burn more fuel than the A220. Because of its size, it will also incur higher landing fees.
Added to all this is Southwest’s recent experience with Boeing. While it’s been a reliable Boeing customer for all 50 plus years of its existence, recent events have taken a bite out of the relationship. Southwest was the largest MAX customer at the time of the grounding, and the way these events hampered its growth probably still sting somewhat.
Nevertheless, keeping to the Boeing brand would avoid all the costly retooling, retraining and added complexities that come with operating a mixed fleet. It could also secure some very competitive pricing from the manufacturer, with Boeing keen to continue to be the sole supplier to the airline.
When will Southwest make the call?
The close-run battle between the MAX 7 and the A220 looks set to be resolved pretty soon. While Southwest won’t be making any decisions imminently, Kelly was clear that he was keen to put the issue to bed as soon as possible. He said,
“In terms of the timing, there’s some I guess relief on the timing just because we have 150 to 200 excess airplanes right now … But, we’re in a retirement phase of the -700 and we will absolutely need a solution for that over the next several years. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner we make up our minds on that the better.”
A move to Airbus would be a first for Southwest, having only ever operated Boeing 737s of various shapes and sizes. While the A220 is a capable aircraft with an increasing presence in the States, is the CEO seriously considering an Airbus, or is he just saying these things to put the squeeze on Boeing and get a better price for the MAX 7?
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.