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.
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.]