Alaska Airlines’ Airbus Fleet Retirement Plans

Filed Under: Alaska

Alaska Airlines has this week ordered even more Boeing 737 MAXs, and in the process has revealed plans to retire most of its Airbus A320-family fleet.

Alaska increases 737 MAX order

Alaska Airlines has restructured its agreement with Boeing to order a total of 68 Boeing 737 MAX 9s, with an option for 52 additional planes:

  • A couple of months ago Alaska Airlines had a total of 32 Boeing 737 MAX 9s on order
  • In late November Alaska Airlines ordered a further 13 Boeing 737 MAX 9s, bringing the order total to 45; as part of that deal, the airline announced plans to sell 10 A320s
  • In other words, with this order Alaska Airlines is committing to a further 23 Boeing 737 MAX 9s beyond what had been previously ordered

The timeline for Alaska Airlines’ 737 MAX 9 deliveries has also been revealed. The airline is planning on taking delivery of:

  • 13 737 MAXs in 2021
  • 30 737 MAXs in 2022
  • 13 737 MAXs in 2023
  • 12 737 MAXs in 2024

Then the 52 aircraft options are for delivery between 2023 and 2026.

It’s not surprising to see Alaska order more 737 MAXs:

  • The airline has relatively few planes on order, to replace its existing 737s
  • Chances are that the airline got amazing terms with Boeing and lots of flexibility, given the history of the 737 MAX, and Boeing’s eagerness to secure new orders

The 737 MAX 9 is the future of Alaska Airlines’ fleet

Alaska will retire most Airbus planes by 2023

Arguably more interesting than Alaska Airlines’ increased Boeing 737 MAX order is the implications this order has for Alaska Airlines’ Airbus fleet.

Alaska Airlines acquired its Airbus aircraft through its Virgin America takeover, and as it stands the airline has:

  • 10 Airbus A319s, which are an average of over 13 years old
  • 49 Airbus A320s, which are an average of over 10 years old
  • 10 Airbus A321neos, which are an average of under three years old

While it has long been rumored that Alaska Airlines would retire most of its Airbus aircraft, that’s now official. Alaska Airlines has confirmed that it will replace all A319s and A320s with Boeing 737 MAX 9s by mid-2023.

So while Alaska Airlines won’t go back to an all-Boeing fleet, the Seattle-based carrier’s Airbus fleet will exclusively consist of 10 A321neos.

As it’s explained, the 737 MAX 9 is 20% more fuel efficient than the A320 on a per-seat basis, and it can fly 600 miles farther.

Alaska Airlines will retire most of its Airbus fleet

Could Alaska do something cool with remaining A321neos?

While it’s highly unlikely anything like this will happen soon, one has to wonder if Alaska could eventually do something special with its A321neo fleet. As much as I’m sure Alaska would love fleet consistency, it makes perfect sense that Alaska isn’t retiring these planes, since they’re new and fuel efficient.

With a subfleet of 10 A321neos, one has to wonder if Alaska Airlines might not eventually use these in a different way than other planes. For example, could A321neos eventually be set up for select transcon flights with a better onboard product?

Alaska is alone in not offering flat beds in business class between New York and Los Angeles/San Francisco. The airline has doubled down on this concept and seems fine with giving up the premium market, though could that eventually change?

This is entirely speculation on my part, though 10 A321neos seems like a potentially decent subfleet to have.

Alaska’s current Airbus inflight product

Bottom line

Alaska Airlines has increased its Boeing 737 MAX 9 order to 68 planes, with an option for a further 52. The planes on firm order will be delivered between 2021 and 2024. As part of this deal, Alaska Airlines will also retire its A319 and A320 aircraft by 2023, meaning that the only Airbus aircraft the airline will operate will be 10 A321neos.

What do you make of these developments to Alaska Airlines’ fleet?

  1. There was never a chance they’d do anything different.

    Anything hinting otherwise was posturing/public negotiation.

  2. “ Could Alaska do something cool with remaining A321neos?”

    Go read Crankyflier. The incoming CEO has already shot that down, plus 10 planes isn’t enough to run a transcon subfleet unless you’re only doing 3x/4x to NYC from SFO/LAX; you couldn’t do SJC, SAN, SEA, PDX, DCA, BOS. AS would need more like 30 A321s to do it right.

  3. Came here to say what eponymous coward just said about the CF article. Also I think I speak for eponymous coward when I say this makes me sorely miss VX, their whole business model aside. 🙁

  4. @lucky can you do a write up what happens when “airlines retire“ aircraft? Are they sold? Scraped?
    I am curious why an airline sell 60 aircraft and but new ones despite amazing price terms, in the current market of excess aircraft

  5. Why do airlines always retire Airbus planes? Personally, I like Airbus better than Boeing so this is kinda biased.

  6. This makes sense considers Alaska is based in Seatle practically next to Boeing.

    What I find most surprising it “30 737 MAXs in 2022”. Unless Alaska seems to be retiring existing 737’s, that is a lot of aircraft at one time, assuming business travel does not rebound instantly.

    Also, what I am concerned about is why does Alaska not have any 737 7 or 8 Max on order?

    There are many routes in which Alaska currently flies a320 or aircraft with 150 seats and I am worried that an aircraft with 180 seats is simply not feasible to fill.


  7. @GoAmtrak:

    I do, kinda, but on the other hand once VX’s investors threw in the sponge to get bought out I knew it was over.

    B6 lapped them with Mint. VX obviously didn’t have the juice B6 did given that B6 started out only a few years earlier and raced past them. B6 also had an advantage that WN (and AS) weren’t as strong out of NYC/BOS as WN and AS are in CA, plus NYC is a stronger base for marketing premium class service to wealthy people than LAX/SFO.

    Also the VX “premium ERRRYWHERE” model for F was stupid. There’s a reason why no US or European airline does huge premium cabins for their mainline narrowbodies on 60-180 minute flights. Not even B6 smokes that pipe- they will never fly Mint everywhere. It’s just not a viable economic model. You’re at too narrow of a market slice between “I fly private” and “I’m not paying 2x for a 500 mile flight to Vegas or LA, I can suck it up in an exit row or see if I can get a free upgrade”.

    AS is more conservative and bean counter driven, but on the other hand they’re still here and arguably in better financial shape to survive COVID and the post-COVID landscape (leisure travel up, business travel down) than any USA airline that’s not WN. People just need to get over the idea that AS needs to chase after premium transcon. They don’t, just like WN doesn’t need to have F and assigned seats.

    Now, if they had converted that A320 neo order to A321 neos you might be able to dream about a Mint knockoff, but I suspect Airbus isn’t cutting deals like Boeing is- their order book is in much better shape because there’s no MAX debacle.

  8. @Sharon:

    A 737MAX is going to cost less to fly than an A320, so even if you’re filling those seats with $59 one way garbage advance fares that is STILL pure profit.

    AS already did this once by dumping their MD80s and 737-400s for 737NGs. More seats + lower or similar flight costs = more profit. They also have a E75 fleet they can use to right size capacity.

  9. @eponymous coward – solid analysis. Solely from a paxex and employee culture perspective, VX were a breath of fresh air, especially for UA hub captives at SFO. The mid-2000s Y cabins and IFE were both STILL better than most domestic seats today, save for B6 and sometimes DL. Premium errrrrywhere was dumb from a business perspective but glorious on those 1-3 hour hops as you mentioned. Very cheap upgrades at check-in. Sometimes when booking last minute the F premium over Y was paltry, or even cheaper than UA Y. Good times…

  10. I don’t want to fly on a MAX ever. Sure they’ll get recertified, but the cloud over that is too dark for me. As someone currently living in SFO but SEA-bound in the new year, looks like I’ll be flying Delta.

  11. I’m on the same page as @Ed. I’ve appreciated Alaska’s commitment to customer safety AND service during the pandemic, but it will be a very long time before I set foot on a MAX. Since AS is joining OneWorld, might as well fly AA.

  12. Would argue this is perfect size fleet and plane for a transcon product. There is really only one transcon market: NY-LA. It is the only city pair with large groups of happy narcissists willing pay an extra $5,000+ to be seen at in front of plane at boarding and then left alone. Other connecting pair are just cities on opposite coasts. Sorry SF.

  13. I’m glad I’m not the only one who still misses VX. Their employees (esp their inflight crew) were really happy and motivated.

    It was a pleasure to fly them.

  14. @VX_Flier While I agree that their employees were great, so are Alaska’s. Those “really happy” VX flight attendants were actually paid garbage wages that were among the lowest in the industry (I think only Frontier paid less).

    It’s true that Virgin America was an airline that did things many customers loved, especially for those in SFO that would have been hub captive to United. But their business model was simply not sustainable. They tried to do things differently and be all cool, hip, and innovative with things like the seatback entertainment, mood lighting, ordering food with the screen, cool recliners with massage functions, etc., while having lower fares than full-service airlines. And then they attempted to compete on many, many routes that were already highly competitive, such as NYC-LAX, NYC-SFO, or LAX-SFO. As a result, they lost money during almost all of their existence. They had to pay their flight attendants and other employees basement wages. They had to make many sacrifices. While their first class product was ahead of the pack when they were launched, they quickly fell behind, especially when JetBlue launched Mint and the Big 3 launched their own premium transcon services. Soon enough, the niche that VX held in the US aviation market was pretty much gone by the time Alaska bought them in 2016. Soon enough, Virgin America’s 15 minutes were up.

    I suspect that if VX had not been bought and basically liquidated by Alaska (the brand, the product, the aircraft, etc.), they would have been liquidated on their own by now. Remember what happened to Oasis Hong Kong? Look it up; they tried to do the same sort of thing as Virgin America, but with 747s and long-haul flights. Generally, attempts at better service + lower costs + too many popular and competitive routes = failure for an airline.

    At least with the two remaining Virgin airlines, the UK pretty much needs Virgin Atlantic as competition for British Airways, and Australia needs Virgin Australia as competition for Qantas. Both of them are bigger and stronger. Virgin America wasn’t so lucky. As awesome as it was, the US doesn’t need it.

  15. I don’t get the point of comparing intraeurope flights with domestic / short intl flights in the United States. Our network here in the states is way different, there is constant aircraft swap. Yes, you may see first domestic first class from lax to Las, but that plane will then flight to Miami. That’s a five hours flights.

    Lucky, I couldn’t avoid noticing that, you completely ignore the fact that the 737 max on aslaska has the same configuration as AA. Slimmer seats, not cabin partitions, and yes, small bathrooms. I’ll give you the new fit of the doubt. Maybe you actually don’t fly them at all being based in MIA.

  16. I agree, there was never any doubt little Alaska would rid itself of its Airbus fleet. Alaska has long been an all-Boeing fleet. (While this wasn’t in doubt, it is a shame; narrowbody Airbus planes are much better than Boeing’s.)

    However, the speculation of doing something special with the 321 neo’s Makes a lot of sense. American is taking their 321T’s out of service, rather than compete with JetBlue’s Mint service. Given the new “arrangements” between AA and both Alaska and JetBlue, AS would do well to join in offering higher-end, limited F class transcon service.

  17. Alaska should use the A321neo for ANC-CTS Sapporo Japan but if they do that and other things that I’d suggest, they would go under. If payload limited westbound, it could do ANC-NRT.

    More profitable is to have a version of Mint on certain JFK, DCA, IAD, BOS routes to the West Coast or SEA.

  18. @OC.Amy:

    Uh, AA has MAX planes in the fleet NOW. They’re bringing them back next year.

    The only US airlines that won’t will be B6 or (for now) DL.

    I say “for now” because DL has 737NGs and if Boeing gives them fire sale prices on the MAX I suspect they’d jump to use them as replacements.

    B6 is unlikely to because they’re an all Airbus/Embraer shop. So I guess get used to connecting on the East Coast a lot from SNA?

    @ everyone else:

    To paraphrase Regina from Mean Girls, stop trying to make Alaska premium transcon happen. It’s not going to happen.

  19. @eponymous coward I could see Delta getting some MAX planes for a deal as you suggested but I could also see them purchasing the Airbus planes that Alaska is getting rid of

  20. Alaska’s retirement of Airbus plans aren’t them being scrapped or sold, they’re lease returns. So the lessor will then try to find a new customer for them down the road and they’ll fly again surely. That’s why the a321s are staying, they’re leases run thru 2029 while the rest of the Airbus fleet expires by 2023.

    As for AS Mint on the 321, it’s an interesting concept but you have to remember AS just renovated the interiors on these aircraft in the last 1-2 years since taking them from VX. If AS planned on installing lie-flat seats, they would have done so already.

  21. I understand the A319s and A320s are lease returns. As far a possible “Mint-equivalent” on Alaska is concerned, I actually think it makes sense. Keep in mind that when AS reconfigured the ex-VX first class, adding seats and taking away recline, that was before a) AS announced they were joining OneWorld; b) separate AA/AS and AA/B6 “partnerships” were announced; and c) before AA decided to abandon a true F service on its transcon flights.

    AA’s A321T’s were, in a sense, a four-class plane, if one considers Main Cabin Extra as a separate class. (I don’t think extra legroom as a separate class per se, but…) AS increased F on the ex-VX A320 series from 2 rows (8 seats total) to 4 (16). If AS stuck to a 4 seat-per-row setup, I think they could manage a total of 12 seats, versus the 5 rows/10 seats on AA’s 321T’s. Given the incentives of AA giving up the market, *and* the increase (presumably) in traffic on AS given the new partnership between AA & AS, I think it might be viable….

  22. This is BAD for Alaska Airlines! I will NEVER step foot aboard a MAX aircraft! I assume that AS only bought/leased these aircraft because of low prices! One crash of this type for AS may be the END of the airline and Boeing as well! BAD CHOICE ALASKA!

  23. It’s unimpressive that AS didn’t take the opportunity to grow up once they acquired VX. Instead, they just eliminated a competitor and decided to shrink back to their old Seattle-only, all-Boeing nonsense. They could have grown; now they won’t be able to really leverage their new OneWorld membership with such a modest operation.

    As for the 737, I have no horse in the game; I take my hat off for its historical achievements – but by now it’s a 52-year-old relic that belongs in a museum. The only reason that any airline is still buying that piece of crash-prone garbage is the virtual duopoly in the airframer market… What a shame.

  24. Josh, you may indeed “stick to your guns” and “NEVER step foot aboard a MAX aircraft!” But human beings have a notoriously bad memory, and with the HUGE number of MAX aircraft either already delivered or still on order from carriers like Southwest (36 MAX jets in inventory, with another 37 on order), American (30 in inventory, 10 more on order), United (19 in inventory, 27 on order), or Alaska (zero in inventory, 3 on order), etc., I have no doubt that a) airlines will be flying them, and b) passengers will be on them….

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