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Alaska Airlines is leaning towards an all-Boeing 737 fleet after the coronavirus

May 05, 2020
3 min read
Alaska Airlines Airbus A320-200 aircraft seen at Norman Y.
Alaska Airlines is leaning towards an all-Boeing 737 fleet after the coronavirus
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Alaska Airlines entered the coronavirus pandemic at a major fleet crossroads: Airbus or Boeing? A decision the crisis may have made for the carrier.

The Seattle-based carrier began the year weighing what to do with the 61 Airbus A319s and A320s it inherited from Virgin America in 2016. On the table was either replace them with more A321neos — the airline operates 10 — or with additional Boeing 737 MAX orders.

At the heart of the decision was whether to return to Alaska's "Proudly All Boeing" marketing or maintain the dual fleet it has flown for four years. At the end of 2019, It flew 71 A320 family and 166 737 family jets.

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Now, with capacity down 80% due to COVID-19 and no expectation of an immediate recovery, the carrier is pivoting back to its 737 roots. Alaska has permanently retired 12 aircraft, all 10 of its A319s plus two A320s, and is re-training some Airbus pilots on the 737 as a result of the crisis.

"It's probably safe to assume that the fleet decision is being made in real time," asked Deutsche Bank analyst Michael Linenberg during Alaska's first-quarter earnings call on Tuesday.

Alaska executives, unsurprisingly, demurred from confirming a pivot back to Boeing. The airline continues to weigh many "factors" when it comes to its future fleet, said president Ben Minicucci in response.

“A dual fleet does have higher costs for us, that is a factor we’re going to consider," he said, adding that no fleet decision has been made. He did emphasize that low costs are a priority for Alaska as it emerges from the crisis.

Related: Alaska Airlines weighs Boeing or Airbus to replace Virgin America fleet

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But the writing appears on the wall. The airline retired the A319s, all of which are leased, even though its 11 comparably-sized 737-700s are older. And any potential future replacement of the 12 retired planes will come from its orders for 32 737 MAX 9 jets, Alaska financial chief Shane Tackett said during the call.

There is still time to fly on one of Alaska's Airbus jets. Leases on the remaining A320s run through 2025, and on the A321neos through 2031. Those return dates can be renegotiated but all of the planes will not be returned at once.

And, for those fleet purists out there, Alaska's regional subsidiary Horizon Air continues to fly both the De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 and Embraer 175.

Alaska has parked more than half of its mainline fleet, totaling 153 jets, due to the pandemic. It has also parked 21 regional aircraft.

Related: Alaska calls Boeing a ‘fantastic partner’ in decision between A321neo and 737 MAX

Featured image by SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett