Alaska Replaces Most of Its Airbus Fleet with the MAX

Alaska Airlines

I know, I know. It’s a Wednesday, and you don’t usually get a post on Wednesday. But as I prepare my regular year-end posts, I realized that I’m running out of normal days to talk about what I want to talk about. So, here we are, because I want to talk about Alaska.

I had the chance to speak with Alaska President-and-soon-to-be-CEO Ben Minicucci about the airline’s decision to retire almost all of its Airbus aircraft and replace them with 737 MAX airplanes. It’s a good and unsurprising move for an airline that has long painted “proudly all Boeing” on the nose of its aircraft.

Original, undoctored image via Alaska Airlines

In the Virgin America merger, Alaska inherited 10 A319s and 53 A320s. It also took over an order for 10 A321neos — all of which have been delivered since 2017 — and 30 A320neos, none of which have been delivered. It was widely assumed that Alaska would retire the Airbus fleet. It wouldn’t commit to that despite all the rumors, but it had started to chip away slowly.

Two of the A320s were returned in 2019. After the pandemic began, Alaska quickly retired all 10 of the too-small A319s. It has since announced it would retire the 10 A320s that it owned, but it was going to stick with the rest of the A320s until leases expired. Then Boeing came along, and the end of the A320s at lease expiration has now been officially confirmed.

Way back in 2012, Alaska placed an order for the 737 MAX. It had a plan to bring on 20 737 MAX 8s and 17 737 MAX 9s, plus options. A couple years ago, that was modified and the order became just 32 737 MAX 9s plus options for 37 more. After the pandemic began, Alaska started doing some bargain hunting. It picked up 13 more 737 MAX 9s on lease, and now it has gone back to Boeing to pick up 23 more plus 15 options.

Alaska must have pulled off one heck of a deal here. It did say that nine of the aircraft are so-called “white tails.” Those are airplanes that were built for a customer that never took delivery. Though I don’t know who these aircraft were built for, it’s safe to assume that at least some of them were part of the Primera order since Primera is now gone and the lessor probably doesn’t have a use for them. Either way, Ben told me that they would be fully outfitted in Alaska’s standard configuration before being delivered. Boeing, meanwhile, will be happy to get those airplanes sold off. I’m sure they made Alaska an offer they couldn’t refuse.

These 68 firm aircraft will replace the 61-strong Virgin America A319/A320 fleet entirely, and then some. Sure it’s a few more airplanes, but it’s also a lot more capacity. The A320s had 150 seats while the 737 MAX 9s will have 174. Of course, it’ll be a lot cheaper to operate the MAX than the A320s, so those are basically free seats that Alaska can fill with low fares and be happy about it.

MAX airplanes will start coming in 2021 and this will happen quickly. It was going to operate 41 A320s in 2021, but that is now down to 30. Meanwhile, 13 MAXs will show up in 2021. The Airbus fleet will stay at 30 through 2022 with 30 MAXs getting delivered. In 2023 there will be only 10 A320s with 13 MAXs coming into the fleet. Then the Airbuses will be gone and in 2024, another 12 MAXs arrive. Options would start being delivered after that, if exercised. In the meantime, you can expect to see A320s parked regularly, getting ready to go back to their owners.

This gradual shift will allow Alaska to, as Ben explained, “put in place a deliberate, thoughtful training plan to convert pilots” to the MAX. Alaska has 830 Airbus pilots on staff.

Once this is all complete, Alaska will… still be operating Airbuses. Ben confirmed that the 30 A320neos will not be delivered, but the 10 A321neos in the fleet today aren’t going anywhere, at least not before the leases expire in 2029. Ben says those are largely going to operate from Los Angeles and San Francisco, but there will be some presence in the Pacific Northwest. Still, why not just retire them?

First, it would be way too expensive to retire those airplanes and not fly them, but Ben did say that if there was an opportunity to get out of the A321s, that would be considered. Still, it’s not just a money problem. Those airplanes are better than anything Boeing can offer.

Ben mentioned two destinations in particular as being ideal for the A321s. Kahului, Maui has a pretty short runway, and the A321s give the airline a big bump in capacity that can easily make it to the West Coast. On the other end of the country, there’s Washington’s National Airport. National has a short runway and it’s slot restricted. That means Alaska wants bigger airplanes to maximize the use of the precious slots it has. The A321neo fits the bill in both cases. Boeing does not have an airplane that can do what Alaska needs to be done from those airports.

I asked Ben if Alaska might consider doing something different with those 10 airplanes. It’s a small fleet, so it could possibly afford to experiment. Could it put flat beds on? Might it create a more premium offering? Nope. Ben shot that down pretty quickly. These A321s will fly as they are.

So, Alaska now has its future fleet plan with only the A321neo sticking out like a sore thumb. If only Boeing could build an airplane as good as the neo, Alaska would have an easier time with its long term plans. But with the neos sticking around at least until 2029, it has plenty of time to wait for Boeing to come up with something better.

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29 comments on “Alaska Replaces Most of Its Airbus Fleet with the MAX

  1. This was inevitable as AS has been looking for ways to dispose of the A320/A321s it inherited from Virgin America. The A320 is a nicer ride, in a wider cabin, but ultimately, this is not about passenger comfort and all about cost savings and operational rationalization. Boeing is desperate to close sales on the MAX and likely gave AS a good price.

  2. This looked to have been inevitable for a while now. Boeing must have given AS a great deal on the MAX. I don’t see the point of getting rid of all the VX A319/320 just to keep around a subfleet of 10 A321NEO. Unless they intend to put in another order, having such a small subfleet is just not optimal even for an aircraft as flexible as A321NEO.

    i’m also curious what they are going to do about SFO. If i remember correctly, SFO does not have a 737 base. So if A320 flying is going away and no 737 base is created, what’s going to happen to their SFO hub. The attention has clearly shifted from SFO to LAX in the past year. The VX deal looks worse by the day.

    1. United does have a maintenance base at SFO.

      Would outsourcing the maintenance of the Alaska 737’s at SFO to United be an option so that Alaska would not need to build up a base?

      Just a thought

      Happy Holidays to Cranky and all of the great commentators on this blog!

  3. Why couldn’t they just create a 737 base at SFO? Seems like a no brainer as pilots are being retrained and 320s replaced by max 9s.

    1. Of course they can. Which is why I said if they don’t create one, that will say a lot about their commitment to SFO.

      1. It also says something about the fact that Virgin America wasn’t sold to JetBlue , an airline that really would have benefited from not only the addition of A320’s/ A321 Neo’s but a large west coast base to boot. As it is, they are attempting to replicate this in LA & their saving grace is oddly the pandemic as they build up the infrastructure in a low demand timeframe.

  4. I have flown on the A321NEO into DCA and it is a very capable and comfortable plane.
    the cost of keeping a subfleet of a large handful of Airbus aircraft has got to be high but just like 757s, they do things that other aircraft cannot.

    Keeping them in their fleet will be a constant reminder to Boeing that the 737 just can’t do what the A321 can.

    It is also a tribute to AS’ financial conservatism that they won’t write down those leases.

    1. You see, Tim, when you write stuff like this, that completely reaffirms my own biases and prejudices, I find you to be a thoroughly decent chap. Merry Christmas, everyone.

  5. Cranky, no need to ever apologize for an extra Wednesday post. There is no one who navigates here on Wednesday, expecting nothing new, and finds themselves disappointed that you’ve posted something new. :)

  6. Interesting post and like mentioned not at all a surprising move from Alaska. I do wonder though what Alaska made of the previous Virgin America A320NEO orders? Surely they would not be able to simply write them off with no penalty to be given to Airbus?

  7. Yuck. Alaska is a decent airline, but their one weakness is being almost all 737,s my absolute least favorite airplane. It’s the ultimate non-regional torture tube.

    1. Totally agree, as frequent flyer on UA pre-COVID, I tried to avoid 737s but sometimes that wasn’t possible. Dislike flying 737 cross country. For an hour or so it’s acceptable but beyond that give me an Airbus.

  8. This is a bad idea by Alaska. The higher ups say it makes sense from a business standpoint. How so? When, not if, the Max is grounded again then what will they do? The Airbus is a far superior aircraft in all aspects including safety and maintenance. With the Max, Boeing tried and failed putting modern technology on a 1960’s era aircraft. They were too cheap to design a completely new aircraft and it cost lives. A mixed fleet would make a lot more sense. As mentioned in the article, the Airbus can fly into airports that the 737 can’t and does it safer. Both flight crews and passengers have said they will not fly on the Max. Hell, I don’t even want to work on them. Bad move by Alaska

  9. I find the Airbus more comfortable than the 737 and I seek that out when I am making flight reservations. I am curious if any reputable organization has ever run a poll about this.

  10. Per the Seattle Times, Alaska will not have to spend any additional capital to take delivery of the 13 MAXs in 2021, as Alaska had already paid significant upfront deposits and the deal was renegotiated for this deposit amount to become the new final sale price. Savvy negotiating move by Alaska to preserve cash as the industry is unlikely to turn the corner anytime soon.

  11. “If only Boeing could build an airplane as good as the neo, Alaska would have an easier time with its long term plans.”

    I genuinely wonder how much money Boeing has lost by not doing a 757neo and I’m wondering if anyone at Boeing is kicking themselves over it. The 737-9 and 10 are both a poor 757 replacement and the A321neo selling well is proving it.

    Also, Merry Christmas to all!

  12. My big question is who will take the Buses, they aren’t that old.

    Didn’t AA take some or all of the 319’s pre Covid?

    1. Jack R – No, American took 8 former Frontier A319s. The Virgin America airplanes appear to be parked. I assume the lessors are trying to find someone to take them.

  13. The YouTube vloggers are flying on the Aeromexico and GOL MAX 8’s and seem impressed. The interior of the Aeromexico MAX is very nice with the large ptv’s at every seat. iTripReport did a nice YouTube video on that one.
    Strictly Flying did a video on the GOL MAX.

  14. Very nice run-down and very informative to have a little insight into the corporate planning level. Kudos to Mr. Minicucci fo sharing so much and putting it into an understandable form.

    And looking at the calendar, wishing you and your family and the concierge team a very Merry Christmas and a most profitable and healthy New Year.

  15. Is AS doing anything to make these widely derided (from a customer perspective) cabins any better or is the AS strategy to cram as many people in and use the uncomfortably thin seats?

  16. Ugh. You are such a typical LA… ‘I this, I that, I grace you with a post, I have news, I have something to say, I know (my audience is shocked) for I posted on such a non-posting day, but I couldn’t help myself so thanks be to I, for I, bring you news.

  17. Cranky I had two questions/thoughts.

    (1) Do you know why Alaska does not have more flights to Canada? Say to Vancouver/Toronto from the major west coast US cities? Perhaps Montreal?

    (2) I wonder if Alaska will ever compete to fly to the east coast from Orange County? NYC? That seems like the only west coast airport where it is not impactful.

    Thank you in advance for your thoughts?

    1. Alex – 1) I do not. They tried Toronto at one point, but it didn’t work. I’m just assuming that there’s not enough money to be made. It’s similar to how in the US Alaska prefers to do intra-west flying more than transcon.
      2) I don’t see how since it is restricted. There isn’t a huge amount of wiggle room for them there.

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