Delta’s Choice of the A330neo and A350 For Its Widebody Fleet May Seem a Little Peculiar

Airbus, Delta

We’ve been waiting a long time for Delta to decide what widebodies it would order to replace its 747s and 767s, and now we finally know. The A330-900neo and the A350-900 have both been chosen. That’s kind of strange considering they have nearly the same capacity, but as always, there is a method to Delta’s madness.

Delta 747 Goodbye

Twenty-five A350-900s are being bought to replace the 747s in the fleet (moment of silence, please). Delta has already started retiring those, and we know that the airline feels there’s too much capacity out there. So it’s going smaller. The A350-900 should seat around 315 in a typical configuration, and it can fly 7,500 nautical miles (nm). Today, Delta’s 747s carry 376 people and can fly about 6,500nm. So the A350 gives better range but carries fewer people. That’s exactly what Delta wants. This airplane will be used to fly primarily US-Asia routes, as the 747 does today.

Twenty-five A330-900neos are going to replace the 767-300s in the fleet, at least internationally. These airplanes usually seat 310 people (only 5 fewer than the A350-900) and will go about 6,200nm. Meanwhile, Delta’s international 767-300s seat between 208 and 226 today. They also fly between 5,400 and 5,700nm at most. This is going to be used to fly from the US to Europe, so mostly shorter-haul international operations. There could be some west coast-Asia flying as well. In this case, Delta is looking to add a lot of seats to what it has today but it doesn’t need the range of the A350.

What could Boeing have offered? Well, there’s the 787-10 which would seat about 10 more people or the 787-9 which is just a bit smaller. The first strike on the 787-10 is that first delivery isn’t scheduled until 2018. The 787-9 is flying but has a hefty backlog. Delta wanted airplanes sooner with the A350 coming in 2017. The second strike? It’s one airplane to fill two roles, unlike the Airbus offering.

I was told by a wise fleet planner that you should only buy the range you need. Otherwise, you’re wasting your money. For European flying, 6,200nm is plenty. In fact, a route like LA to Amsterdam doesn’t even crack 5,000nm. So why buy more airplane than you need? Well, the A350 is going to be more fuel efficient than the A330neo. Or at least it should be since it’s a brand new design. But that’s where purchase price comes into play.

Delta is the first to place a firm order for the A330-900neo, and you know Airbus wanted to get one of those on the books. I have no doubt that Delta got a smoking deal on those airplanes. They’ll still be vastly superior to the 767 in terms of operating economics, but they won’t be the most fuel efficient in the sky. I chuckled when I saw Delta call the A330-900neo “advanced” while the A350-900 was called “state-of-the-art.” Still, the lower purchase price must have made it worthwhile. That’s certainly consistent with Delta’s narrowbody decisions as well.

Meanwhile, for Asia flying, that extra range starts to become more important. Detroit to Hong Kong is 6,800nm, for example. You need those longer legs for Pacific flying, and so the A330-900neo just wasn’t really an option.

It looks like Delta’s needs here were in a little sweet spot of an area that the twin options from Airbus could fill nicely. Combine that with a great price, and Airbus was the winner here.

This all makes sense to me, though you have to wonder how the people in Delta’s burgeoning Seattle hub feel about the decision. Maybe we’ll see Alaska kick up it’s “proudly all-Boeing” marketing message to try to increase its advantage in the market. Or maybe, as is most likely, nobody will care. Delta had to make the right decision to meet its financial and operational needs here. I’m guessing that’s exactly what’s happened.

[Edit to reflect the 787-9 as a comparable option, not just the 787-10.]

[Original by Kentaro Iemoto from Tokyo, Japan (Delta B747-400(N674US)Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

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47 comments on “Delta’s Choice of the A330neo and A350 For Its Widebody Fleet May Seem a Little Peculiar

  1. First, like you, super sad to see the 747 going away. Having been lucky enough to have flown a bunch in the last few years upstairs, it was just perfect. 14 seats, 2 bathrooms, 2 FAs. It was quiet and private and awesome. And the pilots coming in and out of the cockpit were always happy to chat.

    That said, am glad they chose what they chose. The current seating arrangement on the 777s, with everyone facing the aisle in BE, and no one able to look out the window was just odd. I know this could have been fixed with new planes, but not quite sure what drove the original decision.

    And glad to see the 767s going away as well. Those staggered BE seats are mighty claustrophobic.

    1. Some would say the seats are private as opposed to claustrophobic. Guess it depends on the traveler. Personally, I love the staggered seats. Delta has a great set-up… the middle two seats side by side for couples and the solo seats on the outside for singles.

  2. As a passenger given similar safety profiles from Boeing and Airbus, all I care is that the aircraft are quiet (in the inside) and better pressurized than today’s planes, so I am a bit disappointed that Delta is getting the A330 (quieter than the 777 but louder and less pressurized than the 787) but look forward to the A350, which early reports say it’s as quiet and pressurized as the A380 (the quietest plane out there, by a large margin).

  3. While I don’t make my flight decisions based on Boeing vs. Airbus, I do feel a little better about myself when I fly a Boeing aircraft, even more so when I fly an airline with an all Boeing fleet. We live in a global economy and a good deal of the parts in Boeing aircraft are made overseas, but knowing my aircraft was designed and built in the USA gives me a sense of pride.

    1. +1

      Total old school thinking, I know, but its nice to see the US carriers support US aerospace. With Airbus eating a bigger market share, and semmingly having newer metal in the sky, I am mentally associating Boeing = old & no entertainment and Airbus = new & better entertainment when booking long flights. I wonder if others do this. . .

      1. I would 100% disagree with that assessment. The plane manufacturers don’t determine the build of the interior…the carriers do. That said, there are new and old versions of both manufacturers flying and I find no difference in the interior amenities and condition.

      2. That’s funny. From flying domestic flights on Delta, I associate Airbus as the older planes with no entertainment and the Boeing plates as the nicer, brighter planes with seat back entertainment.

        It’s all about how the airline outfits the plane.

        1. The keyword there is “domestic.” The A319-321s, which haven’t been updated since they came in from NW, are probably the worst in the fleet right now (though there are some tired 757s too). However, the A330s they use on a lot of European routes seem to have been redone first, and those are a joy to fly on. Right now those are the only Airbuses they fly (to my knowledge).

          1. Andrew, I was on an A330 with flat bed seats this year and they are great shape with a nice big screen for AVOD. I was trying to refute Jim’s point that Airbus are always shiny and new while Boeing is always old and out of date.

        2. Well, most (all?) of Delta’s Airbus fleet is legacy NW aircraft which were outfitted with no amenities, while most of Delta’s Boeing fleet (except the NW 757s) is legacy Delta or new aircraft which were purchased with entertainment.

    2. It matters to me and I always choose Boeing whenever possible (SEA is my home airport). I’ve got many friends on 787 assembly crews and there’s no way I’ll fly Airbus if I can avoid it.

      1. Why though? Whats wrong with Airbus? My opinion on Boeing: Pretty cool but extremely roudy. Airbus is extremely quiet.

  4. Cranky, dont forget that DL could theoretically use the same pilots for both planes as the a330 and a350 share a type rating. So they aren’t losing people flexibility while they gain specialized planes for each mission.

    The a330 will have a lower purchase price and therefore less capital expenditure which Delta loves. By shifting costs to variable (fuel/people) from fixed (aircraft rent/mortgage) DL can more easily ramp up or down capacity to match the market condition and not be “forced” to fly full schedules to spread out the fixed costs.

  5. You first line got me as I don’t considered the 747’s Deltas, I still think of them as Northwests. Not because that where they came from, but I’ve never considered Delta a 747 airline. While they did have some in the early days of the 747, DL has never seemed like a grant carrier deserving 747’s. They sure made the NW ones look bland and unappealing.

    I’m not old enough to still think of Delta as that crop duster airline in the south, but even today I don’t think them as a stand out global airline. They bring down the grandness one thinks of KLM and Air France, but are a step up from US Airways who I still can’t think of as being a long haul international carrier.

    1. Interesting. I see Richard Anderson and Doug Parker as two of the greatest CEOs in aviation today. Delta has been able to bring innovative new strategies to the aviation business, such as the Trainer refinery and effectively managing a very diverse mix of aircraft. Parker has been a M&A genius, all the while keeping everyone happy (except the AA FA union, I guess). Now do I see either of their airlines in the realm of worldwide grandness, well, not as a passenger, but certainly as a revenue machine.

      But the difference is striking when comparing to the disaster that Smisek has created, or the slow descent into a legacy carrier that Gary Kelly has led.

    2. I disagree. Well not about US airways. I’ll always think of US airways as a pseudo-low cost carrier with old facilities, shit amenities, cranky old flight attendants, and limited accountability / reliability. Its strange for me to think of US Airways as anything more than a shitty domestic carrier.

      But, Delta on the other hand, I associate with the glory days of international flight. When I was a toddler, my mom flew all over the world for business on Delta. I remember going to the WorldPort to pick her up after long trips from the Middle East or Asia. She would emerge from the terminal and tell me about the long distances, huge jets, meals, and great people at Delta. My grandparents have long been Delta sky miles users and fly with them (or sky team partners) in business elite to Dubai, Egypt, Spain, Moscow, Chile, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Germany, China, etc… a few times a year.

        1. The heritage of Pan Am went to both United and to Delta. United first purchased UA’s Asian route system including its hub at NRT, and service to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore as well as Australia. Then in a later transaction, United bought Pan Am’s Heathrow routes and route rights back when only 2 U.S. airlines were allowed to operate into Heathrow. I believe that United also bought Pan Am’s Miami to South America operations although little is left of that. Delta bought what was finally left of Pan Am which was primarily its JFK to continental Europe flights, and that included Pan Am’s Worldport at JFK. It’s a little bit difficult for me to consider DL the successor at PA since it is strictly a 2-class airline (which is what I expect UA and AA will eventually also become.)

      1. I never associate Delta with a grand international airline, the way Northwest was. It is so sad to see those red tails gone, and the horrible widget (which is pointed in the wrong direction) take its place. I also refuse to fly any airline where management demonizes unions. All Northwest flight attendants became “at-will” employees after the merger due to millions poured into an anti-union propaganda campaign. If the Delta flight attendants care so little about themselves on the ground, I shudder to think how little they care about customers in the sky. Sorry, Delta, you’ll never get my business. You’ll always be a third rate airline.

  6. I flew on a DL A330 earlier this month to South America and I liked the experience in J. It was a great setup and it looked comfortable in coach. I think it’s a great move for DL to buy these planes.

    Now, I wonder what is going to happen with their 787 orders that were made by NW before the merger when it is time for delivery? Will they take them or sell them off?

    1. southbay – It’s a great question, and I don’t think anyone knows. They’ve already pushed those so far out they’re almost irrelevant. I will be amazed if we ever see those 787s delivered to Delta. I just don’t think it’s happening.

      1. I’m wondering if some of the new American 787-8s aren’t using delivery positions from Northwest’s original order. I remember reading that American converted some 787-9s into 8s.

  7. “What could Boeing have offered? Well, there’s the 787-10 which would seat about 10 more people.”

    Boeing was offering a mix of 777-300ERs and 787-9s.

    Another interesting comment related to the deal:

    “In the past year, Delta’s leadership has clashed indirectly with Boeing’s in public discussions over whether Congress should reauthorize the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Boeing supports the bank because it finances jet sales to overseas airlines on attractive terms, and Delta opposes it for the same reason.”

    http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2025059475_deltaairbusxml.html

    As far as negative connotations with the flying public in Seattle I’m guessing it will have zero impact on consumer choice. Meanwhile Alaska continues to make headlines for being one of the leading opponents to the $15 minimum wage. In relatively progressive Seattle this is a much more contentious issue than Delta’s choice of B vs. A.

    http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2025060380_seatacprotestxml.html

    Bottom line is people will go with the lowest price. How airlines reduce prices is likely irrelevant to 99% of the flying public.

    1. yeah, delta flies to asia from SEA more than anybody. if you live in SEA or in a connecting city you are going to fly delta to asia whether it’s on a boeing or airbus

      i suspect it is only a sub-microscopic portion of the public that chooses airline based on equipment

      (as an aside, i fly delta almost exclusively based on where i live and convenience. when i travel for work and i have an option, i chose the aircraft that i know has the best interior comfort and F/Y ratio for potential upgrades. sometimes this choice is boeing [or MD], sometimes it’s airbus.)

    2. I really wonder when or if the flying public in Seattle is going to book away from Alaska due to their opposition to the $15 per hour ordinance. I don’t see it happening currently, and AS has been a bit on the downlow with their opposition.

    3. Southeasterner – Yeah, I saw the Boeing offer after the fact so I’ve updated this to include the 787-9. The 777s, however, seemed like they were just stopgaps until Boeing could deliver more 787s.

  8. Think any of this decision is fallout from the Ex-Im Bank spat that saw Delta and Boeing on opposite sides of the debate?

    1. doubt it. It’s an interesting coincidence, but my guess is there were business decisions (common training, cost projections, delivery availability) that were bigger drivers. I’ll be curious to see if DL uses any government financing though, given their comments

  9. Mr S : I was wondering what contributed to their decision. This column is one of your best explanations of things! It’s what you do so well. Thanks. CJT

  10. So I guess that apart from the A380, we will soon see no other planes that have more than 2 engines. And the combined US based airlines fleet will have ONLY double engine planes. Wow – another end of an era!

  11. DL’s bet on low acquisition costs depends on low fuel prices. Otherwise, that is a false economy. Today’s relatively low fuel prices are a result of both the great recession and the shale oil boom. When one or both of those end, and if emerging markets continue to grow their living standards, worldwide demand could continue to raise fuel costs. Of course the financial tradeoff won’t be known for another 5-10 years, when this management likely is no longer in place. Certainly it has worked out for them in the past few years.

    I do think this decision has an interesting side impact on DL’s SEA hub plans. Profitability of a hub depends on both good O/D traffic and flow traffic. AS has a fairly rabid fan base in SEA. And Boeing is a big part of the Seattle community – many folks have a relative who works for Boeing, they contribute, they are a big factor in SEA.

    Obviously DL makes it fleet decisions as well as its frequent flyer plan decisions based on its global needs. But the Airbus decision and the Skymiles devaluations effectively give AS a nice “pricing umbrella” or competitive advantage in SEA that DL really has no way to overcome other than by lowering prices, or by letting AS dominate the domestic market at SEA.

  12. “I was told by a wise fleet planner that you should only buy the range you need. Otherwise, you’re wasting your money.”

    I was wandering over some comments on another site and someone mentioned that Legacy-UA had been quite shortsighted by only buying exactly what they needed at the moment, which means their hands were tied in the future.

    There is enough of a mix here that DL should be fine, but the big key is properly defining “need”.

    1. Nick – That’s a little different, I think. I don’t know the specific comments you’re looking at, but United was notorious for buying lower thrust ratings on engines just to save a buck. It’s really just a paper change to upgrade them but United didn’t want to pay for it. That’s something different than actual limitations on the aircraft. But if you have a link to the comments and they’re different, feel free to include.

    1. Olamide – What do you mean “how” will they work? Atlanta to Lagos is only about 5,000nm so it can definitely fly it just fine.

      1. I am sorry poor use of English on my part :-). Do you think the airbus offers more comfort for the passengers or is this a purely cost decision? I know many people say the airbus can be more comfortable for pax compared to Boeing. What do you think.

        1. Olamide – Oh, sorry about that. The reality is that the airplane is as comfortable as the airlines choose. In similar configurations, an Airbus may have a slightly wider seat just because of the aircraft width but that’s about it.

  13. Wasn’t Delta one of the airlines that signed the agreement back in the early 90’s to only buy Boeing? I know it was overruled in court but seems that loyalty has long vanished from the airline business. That said, I do get the sense that European flag carriers are more loyal to their mates in Toulouse than American carriers are to those in Seattle.

    Mostly I’m disappointed that DL will not be adding the 787 and I’ll have to go out of my way to fly on one at this point. A330…ho-hum, not interesting at all. A350…could be exciting but it has yet to be proven. It would be nice if Delta would keep a few 747’s in the fleet as an homage to NW being a loyal 747 airline on their Asian routes. Imagine a few 747-8’s flying the most heavy traveled routes. Paint them up in a retro NW Orient theme. Awesome.

    1. A – I don’t think I agree with you about the European flag carriers being more loyal to those in Toulouse. AF/KL and BA have a bunch of 787s on order. Lufthansa has the 777X on order and there are still some 747-8s to be delivered. These airlines, with the exception of some A380 orders, seem to just make the best decisions at the time.

      I really have never understood this whole nationalist debate. Maybe it made sense 30 years ago but these are both global companies sourcing from partners around the world, sometimes the same partners at each. So it’s a pretty silly debate.

  14. It was reported that one of the factors in Delta’s decision was that Airbus could offer a delivery date in the second half of 2017 for the first of the A350s. I have to wonder how likely it is that Delta will actually see an A350 in the second half of 2017, given that Airbus has yet to deliver the first A350. Given that Boeing has delivered 204 787s and Airbus has delivered zero A350s as of today, the probability that Airbus will have a major schedule slip is significant. Delta better have contingency plans for a later-than-promised delivery of those A350s.

  15. DL’s A330-300s currently seat 293 (34J, 32Y+, 227Y). I assume the A330-900 will have the same layout, given the airframe is identical. Also, the range of the A330-900 should be about the same as a 767-300ER with winglets.

    I am guessing the DL A350-900s will seat about 320, with 38J seats.

    The A330-900s should have the range to replace any current 777-200ER and 747-400 Atlantic routes (i.e., TLV), with the exception of JNB.

    25 A330-900s should have the capacity to replace about 95% of Delta’s current 747-400s, A330-200s, A330-300, and 767-300ER Pacific capacity. Frequencies will have to change, as the A350-900 will have about 15% less capacity than the 747-400s and about 35% more capacity than the A330-200s they will replace. DL currently shows one A330-300 in TPAC service, and three 767-300ERs. What happens with the 767-300ER routes might be the question.

    Delta has 58 767-300ERs (with three currently in TPAC service). With 25 A330-900s, plus an additional 10 A330-300s on order, along with swinging the 11 A330-200s from Pacific to Atlantic service, once the A350s are on-line, will give DL roughly the same number of seats currently in the 767-300ER fleet. However, again frequencies will need to be adjusted, given 46 A330s replacing 55 767s.

    Another question is what will ultimately replace the 767-400ERs. By the time they are ready for replacement, will the A330-900 still be a viable option, or will Delta go with something else?

  16. Paul – The FAA recently certified the A350, so deliveries to its launch customers will likely begin very soon:

    http://atwonline.com/airframes/airbus-a350-900-receives-faa-type-certification

    Also, unlike the 787’s engine teething issues when it entered service, the A350 is already certified for 370-min ETOPS, which means it’s nearly unlimited as the actual track of the routes it will fly from it’s first revenue flight.

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/15/us-airbus-group-a-idUSKCN0I40S720141015

    Nonetheless, as a long-time DL GM (or higher), I’m disappointed that they didn’t go with the 787 or even the 747-8, but I certainly enjoyed J in the VS A330-300 this past June. Plus, living in DC gives me some options to try the 787 on other airlines – including VS IAD-LHR. Since DL now owns nearly half of VS, I suspect they’ll be watching how those planes perform, especially from a maintenance cost perspective, and I suspect that may inform whether they decide to keep those deferred 787 orders.

    It’s difficult to argue with RA’s track record at the DL/NW CEO, post-merger. Which reminds me: was he CEO of NWA when those 787 orders were placed all those years ago?

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