At one point, Virgin America was set to operate a sizeable fleet of Airbus’ newest narrowbody, the A320neo. Specifically, it had ordered up to 40 A321neo for its operations, but ultimately received only four. What happened to the rest of that order?
Virgin’s neo order
When Virgin America signed an order at the Farnborough Airshow in 2010 for 40 new Airbus A320s, it was in a period of growth. The addition of the new planes would see the airline’s fleet triple in size. At the time, the order was for A319 and A320ceo aircraft, but later part of this order was converted to the modern A321neo.
Virgin America was, in fact, the first airline in the world to sign up for the A320neo. As an all-Airbus operator, it made sense for the airline to embrace this new technology member of the Airbus family. Its order consisted of 10 A321neos on a firm contract, and a further 30 on options.
However, the expansion seen at the time of the order was not to last. In 2012, the airline canceled some A320ceo orders, and at the same time, pushed back deliveries of its 30 A321neos to 2020, as opposed to the original date of 2016. Its first 10 would still arrive starting from around 2016.
As an early committer, Virgin America was a key customer for Airbus’ latest narrowbody iteration. Although Lufthansa launched the A320neo in January 2016, the very first A321neo went to Virgin America.
The first A321neo
Airbus delivered the plane on April 20th, 2017, leased from GECAS. At the time, Virgin America’s president Peter Hunt said it was a key aircraft in its bid to become a more efficient, more cost-effective airline. He commented,
“We are honored to be the first operator of this high in-demand aircraft. The new A321neo – the third member of the Airbus A320 Family to join our Virgin America fleet – will allow us to further reduce our unit costs and enable us to further reduce our carbon emissions.”
But Virgin America had, by then, already been acquired by Alaska Airlines. A ‘proudly all-Boeing’ carrier, Alaska was initially believed to be keeping the Virgin brand separate, leaving the airline to fly Airbus while the main carrier flew Boeings.
In reality, that strategy did not continue for very long. Alaska was keen to instill consistency in its offering, wanted to eliminate the licensing costs of the Virgin brand and, most crucially, to differentiate itself from Virgin Atlantic, which was in the process of laying plans to begin flights to Seattle.
Eliminating Virgin, but not all the neos
Although the entire process of eliminating the Virgin brand took time, the A321neos officially moved to Alaska’s fleet in January 2018. At that time, four were in operation with Virgin America, and a fifth was incoming.
Alaska absorbed all these neos, along with Virgin’s existing A320 and A319ceo aircraft. The 30 A321neos retained on option were able to be canceled without penalty. But the rest of the original batch of 10 were, unfortunately for Alaska, not.
The airline has made no secret of its desire to return to an all-Boeing fleet. Since its acquisition of the sizeable Virgin America fleet, it has already phased out seven of the A320-200s. The 10 A319s remain parked, as do all but 20 of the remaining A320-200s. Alaska has said in the past it hopes to be rid of all these ceo Airbus aircraft by 2024.
But the neo continues to fly. Alaska had no choice but to take the rest of the order of 10, and received the final plane in October 2019. These aircraft are on 10-year lease agreements, and as such, Alaska will struggle to phase them out much before the end of the decade.
Still, Alaska Airlines seems to have found a place for the A321neo in its fleet. All 10 of the aircraft are presently active for the airline, despite the pandemic slowdown.
Data from RadarBox.com shows that the 10 A321neos are flying an average of 2.4 flights per day, and are in the air for 9.6 hours. The airline is making the most of their efficiency and high capacity, often on transcontinental routes of up to four or five hours.
With the lease contract difficult to wriggle out of early, we’ll likely see the neos fly with Alaska Airlines for some years to come.