Could Southwest Airlines Be Edging Towards An A220 Order?

Southwest Airlines could be on the cusp of making its decision for its 737-700 fleet replacements. The airline has been weighing up the 737 MAX 7 against the A220-300 for some time, and the need for a future plan is now becoming more urgent. While the airline has been a Boeing customer for the entirety of its existence, there are a lot of reasons the A220-300 could end up being the better aircraft.

Southwest Airlines
Southwest could be getting ready to make the decision we’ve all been waiting for. Photo: Getty Images

Southwest continues its evaluation of the A220

Southwest Airlines is happily working towards bringing its 737 MAX 8 fleet back, and is starting to see its deliveries of new aircraft filtering through into the fleet. However, there’s another issue the airline is yet to resolve.

Southwest’s fleet of aging 737-700 aircraft are ripe for replacement. The airline has an epic number of the type, 476 to be precise, which average an age of 16 and a half years across the fleet. Some individuals are well over 20 years old.

While the natural replacement for Southwest’s -700s would be the smaller 737 MAX 7, given that it’s always been an all-Boeing airline, there could be another small narrowbody on its mind. The A220-300 has been something of a gamechanger for many airlines around the world, and is touted as the ideal post-pandemic plane.

A220-300 Airbus Demonstration Tour in Asia - Yangon
The A220 is still under serious consideration by Southwest. Photo: Airbus

Since the MAX was grounded, Southwest has made no secret of its intention to assess the A220 against the 737 MAX for its future 150-seat aircraft needs. Just last November, at Southwest’s earnings call, CEO Gary Kelly stated,

“We already said last year that we were going to look very carefully and closely at the A220. It’s a good airplane.”

Now, Jon Ostrower of The Air Current has claimed that Southwest is eyeing up to 300 narrowbody replacement aircraft, and that the decision is split between the Airbus and the Boeing options. The campaign has not yet launched, but Ostrower says that the airline is in talks with Boeing, GE and Safran on a pre-campaign basis.

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Would the A220 work for Southwest?

Fleet commonality has always been a key element of Southwest’s low-cost strategy. Its story started with the 737, and has always kept the same theme. However, changing that up with a purchase of the ex-Bombardier aircraft could be an investment that pays off, eventually.

There’s some super analysis on this available at Air Insight, which explains just how well the A220-300 competes in the 150 seat market. In terms of capacity, it’s closer to the 737-700, with a typical passenger load of 145. The 737-700 seats 143, while the MAX 7 kicks that up to 150.

Economy class A220
The A220-300 hits the sweet spot in terms of capacity. Photo: Air Canada

Five extra seats might not seem a lot, but it changes all sorts in terms of operating the plane. 150 seats or more requires an additional flight attendant, adding cost to the operations. Of course, the 737-700 could be configured with less than 150 seats, but then that swings things in favor of the A220 again, due to its weight.

The A220-300 has an MTOW of 154,000 lbs. That’s 500 lbs lighter than the -700, and 23,000 lbs less than the MAX 7. The new Boeing has an MTOW of 177,000 lbs. If both were configured to 145 seats, the A220 comes out as 15% lighter per seat than its competitor. As we all know, a lighter plane means lower fuel burn, and Air Insight estimates this could make the A220 7% more efficient than the MAX 7.

While the A220 doesn’t have the range of the MAX 7, at 3,350 NM versus 3,850 NM, does Southwest really need it to go that far? Its current -700s only range to 3,010 NM, and most of the fleet spends its time operating routes of 900 miles or less.

Could Southwest Airlines Be Edging Towards An A220 Order?
Southwest’s 737-700 fly more per day, but shorter segments. Data:

Although the MAX is likely to be cheaper at the point of purchase, and comes with the added benefit of Southwest already having pilots who can fly it, over time, that saving could become negligible. Air Insight estimates that the lower operating costs of the A220 versus the MAX could save the airline as much as $270,000 per day, while still transporting the same number of passengers.

As of now, the jury is out in terms of which way Southwest will swing. It does have 30 737 MAX 7s on order so far, but that’s small beans in comparison to the 280 MAX 8s it ordered up. 65% of the airline’s fleet is in the 150 seat market, so while Ostrower claims an order of 300 is on the cards, the ultimate number could be closer to the 500 mark.

One thing’s for sure: if Southwest does defect from Boeing for its small aircraft needs, it will be the biggest snub the US planemaker has had since the beginning of the MAX saga.

Which would you like to see Southwest operate? Let us know in the comments.