Why Delta Canceled Its Boeing 787 Order

Delta Air Lines operates a diverse fleet of Airbus and Boeing aircraft. Its long-haul fleet today is made up of Airbus A330, A350, and Boeing 767 aircraft. But with aircraft currently on order, it will move more towards Airbus over the coming years. This could have been very different, though, if it hadn’t canceled an order for Boeing 787 aircraft in 2016. This article explores this order and why it didn’t work for Delta.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Delta could have started Boeing 787 deliveries in 2020 if it kept the order. Photo: Getty Images

Northwest Airlines ordered 18 787 aircraft

The first thing to understand about Delta’s 787 order is that it originated from Northwest Airlines. It placed an order for 18 787 aircraft in 2005.

The 787 made a lot of sense for Northwest. It would fit well with its existing fleet and make a much more efficient replacement for aging Boeing 747 and McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 aircraft. It would also be the first US-based airline to operate the 787; not a bad strategy to focus on an aircraft with plenty of worldwide attention.

Delta and Northwest merged in 2009. The merger made sense as the two airlines complemented each other in routes and presence. Northwest Airlines was strongest in the Midwest US. Delta was stronger in the transatlantic and Latin American markets. But they did not fit together so well with regards to fleets. The only common aircraft type between the airlines was the 757-200.

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Delta and Northwest merged in 2009. Photo: Getty Images

Delaying the 787 order

Delta did not immediately cancel the 787 order after the merger. It was not clear at the time when the first aircraft would be delivered, nor was the new Delta sure on its strategy for its fleet. It had just come out of severe financial difficulty (there was extensive restructuring at Delta following bankruptcy protection in 2005), and there were a lot of operational changes to focus on (including dropping former hubs at Memphis and Cincinnati).

The delays from Boeing’s side in delivery worked well for Delta. In 2010, Delta agreed with Boeing to further delay the delivery of the 787s to start in 2020.

Shifting to Airbus

It did not take long, though, for Delta to start reviewing its fleet and requirements going forward. When it did, Airbus was the early winner. The widebody fleet inherited from Northwest included 21 A330-300 aircraft, and Delta decided to expand this with an order for 10 further A330-300s in 2013. At the same time, it ordered 30 A321 aircraft. This was the first order with Airbus for over 20 years and marked a major shift in its fleet plans.

Why Delta Canceled Its Boeing 787 Order
Delta inherited 21 Airbus A330-300s from Northwest Airlines and chose to expand this fleet.  Photo: Getty Images

Speaking at the time of this order (and reported by Airbus), Delta’s President Ed Bastian said:

“Delta is excited to select Airbus to partner with us as we continue our fleet renewal. These A330 and A321 aircraft offer a combination of economic efficiency and excellent customer satisfaction, which we experience with the 158 Airbus aircraft currently in our fleet.”

And it was not long before it took its relationship with Airbus further. In 2014, Delta placed an order for 50 widebody aircraft, 25 each of the A350-900 and the A330-900.

Sticking with Airbus made sense, with its already Airbus heavy fleet. The A330-900 aircraft would fit well with the A330-300s, and the A350-900 would go on to replace the Boeing 747s and 777s. Its large fleet of aging 767s would also be succeeded well by the A330s.

Delta Boeing 747
Delta retired its 747s by 2017, and routes shifted to the A350. Photo: Getty Images

Canceling the 787 order in 2016

It was not that much of a surprise when the delay turned into a cancellation. It was announced in December 2016. The cancellation terms were not released, but Delta stuck with its order for 120 narrowbody 737-900 aircraft.

Greg May, Senior Vice President – Supply Chain Management and Fleet, explained at the time:

“Delta is one of the world’s largest operators of Boeing aircraft and our valued partnership with Boeing will remain strong as we safely and comfortably serve our customers across the world every day. This business decision is consistent with Delta’s fleet strategy to prudently address our widebody aircraft needs.”

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The A350 has been delivered since 2017 and is replacing the Boeing 747s and 777s. Photo: Getty Images

In reality, adding the 787 would have added another layer of complexity to the fleet. The orders with Airbus had begun to streamline a diverse post-merger fleet. Adding the 787 would have complicated this, especially as it would not add anything that the A350 could not offer.

Simplifying the fleet

We have, of course, seen further fleet simplification in 2020. As service resumed, Delta announced several retirements. This included retiring all of its Boeing 777s in 2020 (the final flight of a 777 was at the end of October). This was much earlier than planned, especially as they had just undergone significant and expensive refits.

There are, of course, several advantages in keeping a less diverse fleet. An airline can likely negotiate better prices with larger orders. And it also leads to simpler operations and lower operating costs. Aircraft maintenance, flight scheduling, and crew operations are all easier with a more streamlined flight. For one of the best examples of this, take a look at Emirates. One of the main reasons it has made the A380 work where other airlines have failed is through the economies of operating such a large fleet.

What do you think about Delta’s cancellation of the 787 order and its shift more to Airbus? Could it have made the aircraft work? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.