Airbus takes hits from Alaska, United

Airbus took two hits today as both Alaska Airlines and United Airlines indicated future fleet changes that are likely to negatively impact the European manufacturer. Neither should come as much of a surprise to industry observers; indeed, most folks have been assuming this outcome for a while now. Still, having it as official from the companies makes things slightly more interesting.

Phasing out in Seattle

For Alaska Airlines the news is that CEO Brad Tilden is now saying he expects that the Airbus fleet acquired along with the rest of Virgin America will likely be phased out. He’s also quoted as saying “This company could not be more in love with Boeing, or loyal to Boeing,” according to the story.

Putting aside the regional operations that are decidedly not “Proudly all Boeing” this pronouncement is pretty much what everyone has expected from Tilden since the merger was announced. Despite Virgin America’s position as the launch customer for the A321neo and that carrier’s long-term loyalty to the A320 family of aircraft it makes sense economically for Alaska Airlines to focus on either the Boeing 737s or the A320s; keeping both was never really going to happen. With a much larger legacy investment in the 737 line and that local connection to Boeing this is the natural outcome from the merger.

Goodbye, Virgin America. Hello fully integrated airline in 2019

Which is not to say that the planes are going to disappear any time soon. The prior “foreseeable future” still holds as the cost to get rid of the planes quickly hasn’t changed. And, despite growing maintenance costs on the Airbus fleet the carrier cannot simply ditch the planes. It is adjusting into the merger and continues to shift operations and grow in to its larger west coast footprint (mostly with additional E75s operating).

If I were to guess, they won’t be in the fleet permanently…It will take some time to get a transition done

Still, this is the most clear statement the company has made thus far that it will eventually return to being a (mostly) all-Boeing operation.

United (Definitely) Defers

United has now officially deferred the four A350-1000s previously slated for delivery in 2018. Given typical manufacturing lead times this was pretty much when that decision would have to be made public as it affects many suppliers, not just Airbus.

Twin-aisle challenges affect suppliers and passengers

United is not just delaying Airbus deliveries; it is also increasing and accelerating Boeing aircraft acquisitions. Even with the accelerated 747 retirement (the A350s were, at one point, slated to replace those) United is okay on capacity thanks to the new 777-300ERs it recently acquired. Oh, and there will be four more of those in 2018 thanks to the order announced during the Paris Air Show a few weeks back. Plus some other new toys will join the fleet.

With regards to future deliveries, UAL deferred four Airbus A350 aircraft out of 2018 and accelerated 12 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft into 2019 and two 787-10 aircraft within 2019. The company also converted 100 of its current Boeing 737 MAX aircraft orders into Boeing 737 MAX 10 aircraft and expects to take delivery of the aircraft starting in late 2020.

Again, not particularly surprising given the conversations about fleet mix for a while now, plus the likely fire-sale prices the 777-300ERs would come at given Boeing’s need to keep the line running as the 777X moves into manufacturing.

More bigger jets eventually for United, but what now?

Delta Delivers

It isn’t all bad news for Airbus this month. Delta took delivery of its first A350 late last week, the first of the type to be based in North America.

The aircraft is spending a couple extra weeks in France on holiday before it heads to Atlanta, however. Maybe even call it “medical” tourism of a sort, what with the surgery involved. Immediately after delivery the plane was transferred to the Airbus Corporate Jet Center where the Gogo 2Ku kit will be installed. This is a not-quite-linefit-but-pretty-close sort of solution that has Airbus handling the install work, though not on the main A350 production line.

Oh, and Delta has deferred some A350 deliveries as well, though unlike United it seems likely that all the Delta orders will eventually be completed.

Header image: A350-1000 first flight, courtesy of Airbus

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. So am I. As long as US airlines can depend on government preferences and protection and as long as the unions will defend those things, a 9-across 787 is the way to go.

    2. And as along as FAA and EASA continue to accept simulation tests to demonstrate that high-density LOPAs can be evacuated within 90 seconds using only half of the total number of emergency exits…

  1. That fun feeling when a hosting company runs apparently “scheduled” maintenance for 20 minutes right after you post a new story. Oy.

    Back online now for those still interested.

  2. seat width is selected by the airline, not by Airbus or Boeing. they can install any thing you want . If it’s bought by the pork chop assn. they make bigger seats special order…….If you want just one seat for you, YOU GOT IT !!!!!

    1. Yeah, but not really.

      The air frame dimensions and operating costs have a direct impact on what seats are installed. The Airbus frames are designed to a width that get to the operating economics with the wider seats compared to what the Boeing options deliver. And when profits drive everything for an airline you get choices like 10-abreast on the 777 instead of the original 9-abreast design/delivery. Ditto for the 787s flying at 9-abreast, not 8.

      Sure, that’s an airline option, not the airframer, But the airframers absolutely enable such moves in their design decisions. And they do not design planes in a vacuum. They do so in partnership with their airline partners.

      You know as well as I do that the design for the MAX10 was finalized and announced only after many airlines – including United – agreed to the design specs and committed to an order. The MAX7 was changed to add a couple rows of seats after consultation with Southwest and WestJet, the pending orders, approved the move. The A350-800 was scrapped after minimal orders but in consultation with the airlines that had placed those orders, ensuring that other products would meet the mission profiles – including costs – that the original planes promised. And the DC-10/L-1011 frames were designed in part based on specific airline requests to be able to operate from LGA.

      They all work together on these decisions. No one party bears all the blame.

    2. I believe leisure carrier Air Caraibes is the only carrier to select 10-abreast on the A350 thus far (at least the only one publicized; Airbus said “less than a handful” have been ordered). 9-abreast with 18″ seat width is standard, so yeah, I was looking forward to it. Especially given industry’s 777 densification.

    3. Wrong. The Manufacturers design the airplane for MAXIMUM certification of passengers, Ergo, Maximum flexibility for a customer to use as THEY want,… that more seats offered.. more flexibility, less seats in some markets are what sells. The BBJ, (Boeing Business Jet) was the same as the SWA 737-700. I ran the 737 program. I know what we were trying to achieve.. Flexibility…range, payload and customer flexibility. The 737-800 is the most prolific design and best selling airplane in the world. If certification by the FAA will allow the evacuation of X people in the required time, the manufacture has an airplane that will fly, X miles with Y cost and carry up to Z people. They don’t negotiate with customers a limit, just the overall performance, cost and sales price. I actually bought AND sold new airplanes at my time at Boeing. I kinda know what drives the design requirements and objectives, cost and what our customers are asking us to build.

    4. So explain the MAX200 that included specific adjustments in the design to account for Ryanair’s requests to handle that many passengers? Boeing just made that change because they got a hunch the plane needed more seats inside, not because Ryanair brought up the topic? I’m not buying it.

      The max evac number matters but if you tell me that everyone at Boeing or Airbus (or Embraer or Bombardier or other commercial airframers) believes that the aircraft are going to operate at those max numbers I’d say that’s probably not true.

      The “X miles with Y cost carrying up to Z people” number is exactly what I’m talking about. When Oceanic Airlines shows up and says it wants a plane to carry 300 people 5000 miles both Airbus and Boeing will have an answer. The Airbus answer will nearly universally include an option that has wider seats compared to what Boeing brings to the table at a similar CASM. You chose the 777s at Continental with 9-abreast seating. At the time the company could afford the higher costs. Today airlines have decided that those increased costs are not worth it to their stock price.

      And passengers are starting to notice the difference.

    5. Gordon Bethune In a time where anybody with a social media account and an opinion become “experts”, its nice to see that there are actually people who know what they are talking about. On the subject of building Boeing airliners, and running successful Major Airlines, it’ll be hard to beat Mr. Bethune…..

    6. I respect Gordon a ton and have for many years. Even got to meet him and talk shop a while back, though I doubt he remembers that. But that doesn’t mean I agree with him on every topic nor that the answers are always simple, obvious or clear-cut.

      There is nuance to the discussion that is being missed for the sake of statements like The airline makes all the seating choices on its own or the max evac capacity is the only design consideration for an aircraft. There’s more to it than that and I prefer to have these conversations at that level.

    7. Seth Miller well range , weight and payload and Mach cruise/ fuel burn / maintenance cost are the drivers for design , customers always go for total cost AND market capability. I think we’re saying mostly the same thing. The airbus seat width is more than offset by the pax head clearance difference against the curving fuselage. A round fuselage has the window seat passenger leaning his head toward the aisle. Chocolate or vanilla. They’re different…not “better”. You can theorize all you want but I do know how airplanes are conceived and sold as well as how they are evaluated and purchased. All manufactures listen to what the majors players want and need. That’s what they design, build an sell.

    8. Henceforth, when passengers complain about narrow seat width on the 9-abreast 787 and 10-abreast 777 (which they do, regularly), I can tell them: “Take it from Gordon Bethune – the Airbus seat width is more than offset by the pax head clearance difference against the curving fuselage.” That will surely comfort them, even if their hips and shoulders are rubbing up against their seat mates. Rofl.

    9. If passengers’ perceptions about comfort on certain high-density, long-haul aircraft are wrong, as you suggest, why would they need to buy first class? Under that logic, their discomfort is merely a figment of their imaginations. I’m certain this message will be warmly received by mobile, social, vocal passengers. This isn’t about Airbus or Boeing. It’s about the fact that passengers are increasingly educating themselves about what experience they can expect on board and yes, that includes scrutiny of aircraft type. Why? Because legacy airlines have taken delivery of 9-abreast 787s (though Boeing originally suggested a dreamy 8-abreast) and are densifying the 777 to 10-abreast. They get away with it, in my opinion, because, bar certain exceptions, the seat width comes in at roughly the same as that found on the 737, whereas moving to a 10-abreast A350, for example, means a super-snug – I’d argue inhumane – 16.4” seat width.

    10. Mary Bernadette Kirby The public has made it abundantly clear, they want the lowest fare! They don’t want to pay for a bigger seat, or food, or much of anything. A competitor with a seat priced $10 less will steal them away. If you are traveling on business and your comfort is paramount to you and to your company, you can instruct them to book you in first class. Or you can do like most, and accumulate your FF miles and eventually get that upgrade.

    11. Paul Wilson spot on. First priority is price. 2nd is schedule. Aircraft type rarely plays a role in purchasing a ticket. They wait till onboard to complain to the crew who have to listen to everything that’s not “perfect”.

    12. Mary Bernadette Kirby I didn’t suggest anything. Different air carriers configure the airplanes they purchase to fit their strategy to become profitable. Boeing nor Airbus tell a Norwegian Air how many seats to install except to conform to the maximum allowed by the certification authorities. Seat width and pitch are airline marketing decisions. If customers feel cramped, it’s because they bought a ticket priced to attract, or a schedule that was more convenient but not necessarily comfortable. If it’s too uncomfortable, they’ll buy from someone else or opt for a more expensive seat next time. There is a lot of variability in the long haul market and it appears there will be even more. Mostly you get what you pay for….not sometimes what you expect. Freddy Laker’s $99 transatlantic fares were popular but not enjoyable. There will be some ultra high density seats coming to market now that “open skies” are available to flags of connivence a la Norway flying under Irish authority and EEU membership

    13. Price & schedule still dominate most decisions. That has absolutely been the case historically and continues today. But there also was zero metadata available about aircraft during the search process historically. That’s changing.

      OTAs today are now able to advertise accurate information about on-board amenities, including seat pitch and width. Significant amounts of cash are being invested on this front by small startups like RouteHappy and larger players as well (a couple links at the bottom of this reply). And some passenger behavior is slowly beginning to shift on this front. Slowly, but it is happening. And if a consumer sees that two similarly timed and priced options offer different levels of personal space on board there’s a decent chance they’ll pick the more comfortable one. Which goes back to the challenge of CASM on twin-aisle aircraft and the necessary seating density an airline will need from each of the vendors to realize their operating targets.

      To pretend that people are behaving the same as they always have and that they always will is to play the ostrich and bury ones head in the sand rather than to recognize that things are changing and that the future will be different than the past. Much of that is because of the ability to easily share data and experiences, just like we are doing here right now.

    1. Wouldn’t have it any other way. The friends willing to have a smart, sharp conversation about interesting topics are the ones I want around.

  3. The A350 is too good to wear United colors. This “new” 777-300ER is a 9 year old model and they want to compete with the European and middle east airlines?


    1. Yeah..I’m sure Airbus called United and begged for the order to be deferred so that the Globe logo wouldn’t be on the A350 tail. C’mon, man.

  4. I wouldn’t be suprised to see American follow United on cancelling their A350 order. They sure have delayed the order enough that its pretty clear they don’t seem to want them.

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