Southwest Airlines is seriously considering the Airbus A220 for its next new jet
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Salt and pepper, airports and airplanes, Southwest Airlines and the Boeing 737. All items that are expected together.
But now Southwest, having flown the 737 nearly exclusively since 1971, may finally be ready to add a new aircraft type to its fleet. The airline is evaluating its next small jet — one seating around 140 to 150 passengers — and both Airbus A220 and 737 MAX 7 are on the list.
“We absolutely do need the smaller airplane,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said during the airline’s third quarter earnings call on Thursday, Oct. 22. “We have a ton of 737-700s that are coming up for retirement over the next several years.”
Ordering a plane during a crisis is not necessarily a bad idea. As long as an airline can support the financial commitment, planemakers are often desperate for new deals as orders tend to dry up and deliveries slow as airlines struggle.
Boeing, for one, has lost 757 orders for the 737 in 2020 alone, according to its orders and deliveries data through Sept. 30. The cancellations are likely a combination of the jet’s grounding and the COVID crisis.
In addition to potential deals, Southwest anticipates a recovery in air travel over the next two to three years — or in the 2023 or 2024 timeframe. All told, given the lead time for new planes from both Airbus and Boeing, the carrier needs to act soon to lock in mid-decade deliveries.
Southwest is evaluating the A220 and MAX 7 to place an order in about a year, the Dallas-based carrier’s operations chief Mike Van de Ven said on the call. Deliveries would begin around 2025.
At the end of September, Southwest had orders for 30 MAX 7s due by 2024, its latest fleet plan shows. It flew 496 737-700s each seating 143 passengers.
The MAX grounding appears to be the straw that broke the back of Southwest’s long-standing exclusive relationship with Boeing. Shortly before the suspension began in March 2019, Kelly told investors that the airline was not considering alternatives to the 737. Things changed quickly.
By that April, The Air Current reported that Southwest representatives had visited Airbus to “kick the proverbial tires” on the A220.
— Jon Ostrower (@jonostrower) October 22, 2020
Now, whether there’s a split with Boeing remains to be seen. But Southwest’s eye is wandering.
“The A220 and the MAX 7, they’re the two players in the marketplace,” said Van de Ven. “Both of those airplanes have their strengths and their disadvantages. And we’re — we’ve been looking at both airplanes.”
The A220-300 can fly up to 160 passengers in a single-class layout just over 3,900 miles, according to Airbus. The MAX 7 can carry up to 172 flyers for 4,430 miles, according to Boeing. The former has a maximum takeoff weight of 69.9 tons and the latter 79 tons; a lighter-weight jet tends to be more efficient over multiple shorter flights than a heavier one.
The European planemaker is also considering developing a larger A220-500 that would more directly compete in size with the MAX 7. However, in August, Airbus Americas CEO Jeffrey Knittel told FlightGlobal that development of the larger variant was on hold during the crisis.
The A220’s seeming advantages over the MAX 7 may not be enough to sway Southwest. The airline is a living example of the benefits of a single fleet, something its leadership has long touted as part of its successful DNA.
And an order would be Boeing’s to lose. The Chicago-based planemaker will undoubtedly make a strong play to keep Southwest in the 737 fold.
Airbus spokesperson James Darcy said the planemaker does not comment on airline campaigns.
Boeing spokesperson Jessica Kowal declined to comment.
Featured image by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images.
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