Alaska Airlines has long loved to stretch the truth about its fleet simplicity, but only just a bit. The Virgin America merger made that a lot harder, but now, the airline is making a big move, ditching 3 aircraft types and trying to get back to where it once was. This was already something Alaska had wanted to do, but now it has another reason to make it happen… the pilot shortage.
Alaska mainline had been 737-only since the MD-80s were retired in 2008 and for that reason, Alaska could wear the “Proudly All Boeing” sticker under its cockpit windows. Being a Seattle-based company in a land where Boeing used to be based and still builds a lot of airplanes — some of which it can actually deliver — makes it worth it to show some solidarity with the locals.
Horizon never operated Boeing aircraft, but as a wholly-owned subsidiary it is technically a separate airline. Horizon had built up a large fleet of Q400 turboprops (built by Bombardier) and then later added Embraer 175s (built by, well, Embraer). After an experiment with CRJ-700s operated by SkyWest (after Horizon had also tried that path long before), Alaska moved on to have the airline fly only Embraer 175s under the Alaska brand.
This was all well and good, but then Virgin America showed up. That airline was all-Airbus, and this fleet wasn’t something Alaska could just easily replace. In the merger, Alaska inherited 10 A319s, 53 A320s, 10 A321neos, and an order for 30 A320neos. It slowly started to whittle those down, but there wasn’t a clear and easy path to go back to being all Boeing then.
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, Alaska created a new plan. Besides shedding its orders, the A319s were too small and would be retired right away. The owned A320s would be retired as well, but those under lease would stick around until they expired. Even with that, this wasn’t going to be all-Boeing…
Alaska’s problem was two-fold. One, it needed a lot of airplanes and two, it needed airplanes that could perform the required missions.
The A321neos are rock stars, and Alaska could not find a better option from Boeing. With 190 seats, those airplanes could help Alaska maximize capacity at slot-restricted airports like New York/JFK and most importantly Washington/National where the short runway makes it hard to get big airplanes off with a full load.
Earlier this month, Alaska made its first move to rectify that problem. The airline moved its 737 MAX 9 orderbook around to shift away from only flying the MAX 9 to now include the MAX 10 for high capacity and the MAX 8 to replace A320s in longer-haul or mid-size markets that couldn’t support a larger airplane.
With this new rejiggered order, Alaska felt emboldened to finally pull the plug. The airline has now announced that the A320s will be gone next year as planned, but now even the A321neos will be gone by the end of 2023.
This is great news for Alaska, because apparently the leases Virgin America negotiated were pretty terrible. Now Alaska can get rid of those once and for all. It will also, in a surprise, ditch the Q400s from Horizon’s fleet. But I’ll talk more about that later.
Here is a look at Alaska’s new plan. Note that I’m guessing the 150-162 seat number is wrong for YE 2024 because there may very well be 737 MAX 8s delivered that year, but I couldn’t see 2024 MAX 8 delivery dates in the Cirium data, if there are any. Also, note that these numbers differ very slightly from Alaska’s recent investor presentation, but this is how my math added up.
Alaska Aircraft Planned by Seat Capacity by Year
What you see here is the result of Boeing delivering MAXs like crazy. The numbers are growing, and by the end of 2023, Alaska will have more mainline aircraft than it had at the start of 2023, even with the Airbuses all going away.
But will Alaska really be able to serve all the markets it wants? I asked the airline for comment and was told this:
After the A321, the largest airplane we can now operate at DCA is the 737-9. It carries the same number of passengers as the 737-900ER more efficiently. The 737-10 will allow us to carry more passengers per departure, and while we won’t know the exact runway requirements of the 737-10 until it is certified, we expect to be able to operate it from both DCA and JFK.
If the MAX 10 can really handle DCA to the west coast with a full load, then the problem is solved. Those airplanes won’t arrive until 2024, so there will be a capacity hit during the transition, but Alaska can go back to saying it is Proudly All Boeing and not have to put an asterisk next to the statement… except for those regional aircraft.
The move on the regional side is a different story. Horizon had built a backbone with the Q400 and had been planning on keeping that fleet flying for a long time, far longer than was previously expected. Now it will make a quick exit.
Though Horizon and SkyWest are both adding Embraer 175s, there is a big hit to capacity. The regional fleet will still have 12 fewer aircraft at the end of 2023 than it had in 2021. This, of course, is easily remedied with an order for a few more. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen, and it really shouldn’t be hard to get more airplanes in time.
Alaska tells me, “we aren’t pulling out of any airports we currently serve due to the change,” so there don’t seem to be performance concerns about the jet over the prop. I do remember that Santa Rosa used to only be workable with the Q400 but the runway was lengthened so that’s not an issue anymore.
The Q400s were just cheaper airplanes that did a great job of flying shorter distances. So why would Alaska want to get rid of them? In this case, my assumption is that it’s a pilot problem. Regionals are struggling to find enough pilots to fly their schedules, and having two fleets makes that even harder. It significantly increases the training burden and pulls pilots out of the schedule when it’s time for them to upgrade.
I am sure this is putting stress on Horizon right now. Going to an all Embraer 175 fleet takes all that away. Any pilot in the company can fly any airplane, and that is a hugely important. I have to imagine that this was the driving force behind making the change, and it’s a sensible move in a situation like this.
So now, we have a new Alaska fleet that will be all Boeing… and Embraer. But it should make life easier for the airline in many ways, and that will be a welcome change. I’d recommend scrolling through the airline’s recent investor presentation to learn more about how Alaska is firing on all cylinders right now. It’s a good presentation from a company that is running well. Can’t say that about this industry too often these days.