Spirit Airlines is well-known for being a prolific Airbus A320 family operator. It has a sizable order for Airbus A320neo aircraft and has plans to significantly grow its fleet of A320neo aircraft over the next few years. With 24 new A320neos coming next year on top of 16 new jets in 2021, Spirit Airlines has significantly grown its fleet of newer, fuel-efficient jets. However, there is an outlier in the Airbus A319 fleet. The smallest and oldest planes in the fleet, Spirit Airlines brought them back after parking the fleet of 31 aircraft in 2020. Here’s why.
Why Spirit brought back the A319s
Speaking with John Kirby, Vice President of Network Planning, he explained to Simple Flying why the airline decided to bring these jets back:
“The idea here was we wanted to get back to growth. So if we retired the 319 fleet, we probably wouldn’t have been able to really grow in the back half and take advantage of opportunities that we thought would be evident.”
The simple answer was that Spirit wanted to grow faster than its new deliveries would be able to fuel, particularly in the second half of 2021, which includes most of the summer season and busy Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday periods. As early as October of 2020, Spirit had already begun planning its future with the A319s.
Some of this has been evident in Spirit’s new market launches. The airline added St. Louis (STL), Louisville (SDF), Milwaukee (MKE), and more throughout 2021 while also adding new routes from existing cities like Atlantic City (ACY). However, there was another factor at play that pushed Spirit to bring the Airbus A319s.
Spirit gained access to new real estate
One of the biggest constraining factors for an airline is real estate. Airlines need to have a gate or a remote space where they can board aircraft. They need room for a ticket counter and bag drop and room to bring bags from the jet to the terminal. Many major airports are significantly congested, but that does not mean Spirit could not gain new space. As Mr. Kirby explained:
“But we still had some really good successes in 2021 on real estate so we were able to get access to the Marine Air Terminal LaGuardia which will now be our permanent home and we’ll be the primary lessor on the Port Authority of New York, New Jersey…We were able to pick up a fourth gate Los Angeles, which again wouldn’t have happened if not for the pandemic.”
The running theme on keeping the A319s is to take advantage of the opportunities as they arise. While some of this is opportunistic, real estate is something that is more of an urgent need to take advantage of before the opportunity goes away. For example, if not Spirit, some other airline would have likely taken the new gate spaces in LaGuardia and Los Angeles. To keep those spaces and cement their position for the next few years, Spirit has kept its Airbus A319s.
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Spirit stays flexible on the Airbus A319s
The last thing Mr. Kirby mentioned with respect to the Airbus A319s is how Spirit has been able to change the mission of the fleet in its network:
“As we grew our Neo fleet, because historically that 319 was the workhorse of our long haul fleet because the 319 had the greatest range of our aircraft. Getting critical mass and the NEOs and being able to shift our long haul flying from the 319s to the Neos, not only did we get more seats on some very popular and full routes, we also were more fuel efficient, but it allowed us to adjust the mission of the 319s so that we’re not flying him as hard as we used to. So I think that prolongs the life expectancy. Its still obviously a fleet that will be the first that we retire down the road. But there really was no say screaming reason for us to retire the 319s”
The A320neo family of aircraft is the next generation of the popular Airbus A320 line. While the A320ceo has been a trusty aircraft that worked well in many different markets, it lacked range. The A320neo offers a far better range, allowing Spirit to send those aircraft on some longer routes, as Mr. Kirby mentioned.
The primary factor that ages and pushes an aircraft to retirement is not the age, but the number of flight cycles they go through, which puts wear and tear on the fuselage and various parts of the aircraft. Spirit pushing down the utilization on the Airbus A319s could add a few more years of life to the planes, thus allowing the airline to, down the line, keep the fleet for more opportunistic growth as it did this year and then replace them with Airbus A320neo aircraft.
Spirit’s fleet plan sees the airline expecting to continue to fly its 31-plane strong fleet of Airbus A319s until at least the end of 2023, if not beyond that. The primary determinant for the future of those aircraft will certainly be the A320neo order book, which Spirit was able to reorganize to accelerate deliveries due to the crisis.