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.
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.