There has been a rash of articles this week breathlessly focusing on US carriers and the prospect they will order airplanes this year.
This is no revelation, nor is the prospect that Boeing customers might line up and buy from another manufacturer.
We’ve written about this in the past. It appears to be time to revisit the topic.
American, Continental and Delta Air Lines signed exclusive supplier contracts with Boeing in 1996, effective for 20 years, so particular attention is on these carriers.Although the agreements still technically are in effect, as a condition for European approval of the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger, Boeing agreed not to enforce it. The airlines have honored it in the meantime.
Southwest Airlines, of course, has been exclusively Boeing since its inception in 1971 and had purchased more 737s than any other customer. If they buy non-Boeing airplanes, so the arm-waving goes, the world will fall in on Boeing.
Let’s go down these airlines, one-by-one.
American has one of the oldest fleets in America. The sheer volume of aging airplanes–MD-80s, 757s and 767-200s–practically means no one manufacturer can reasonably provide all the airplanes needed to modernize in a short time. We know American to be unimpressed with the 737-900ER and favorably disposed toward the A321neo as a replacement for the 757 and 767-200ERs used on US trans-con service. The A321neo can also be used on thinly traveled trans-Atlantic service and Hawaii, routes that challenge the 739ER. This is an easy call: A321neo.
Replacing the MD-80 has been underway with American’s purchase of 737-800s, and American has already reduced the old airplane fleet by 100. Boeing could drop the price of the 737 even more to keep this business and with production ramp-up, deliveries can be accelerated. We think Boeing keeps this segment of the business.
An all Boeing customer with the naming of Gordon Bethune, a former Boeing exec, as CEO in the 1990s, Bethune is long gone and while many of his executives remain, Continental is now United Airlines with its large A319/A320 fleet and an order for A350s. The Continental management displaced the United management but the lead fleet planner told us directly now that there is a mixed fleet, Airbus will be very much in contention for new airplane orders. The size of the combined carrier is a very different proposition than the size of Continental. The “new” United hasn’t issued an RFP yet but we give Airbus a solid chance to win orders from the formerly exclusive-Boeing Continental management.
Delta Air Lines
A similar situation to Continental exists but somewhat in reverse. Delta was a member of the exclusive suppliers club and Delta was an exclusive Boeing customer. But Delta acquired Northwest Airlines, a major Airbus operator. The old exclusive-Boeing Delta management is gone, however, replaced by the old Northwest management that ordered Airbuses. Relations between this management and Boeing at at rock-bottom, largely over the 787 delays. Delta hasn’t canceled the order but it may as well have–the deliveries have been pushed out to the 2020 decade, which is infinity in airline terms. Delta is Airbus’ to lose. There’s no exclusive supplier bias toward Boeing here.
This would be the earthquake blow to Boeing if Southwest buys from another, and CEO Gary Kelly and his executive team have been telegraphing for some time they are prepared to do so.
Fuel reduction is very important to Southwest, as are strides in reducing the environmental impact of emissions. Now that Southwest is buying AirTran and a second fleet type is coming in the form of the Boeing 717 (nee MD-95), Southwest has mentally accepted that one fleet-commonality is history. (Actually it has been since the introduction of the 737NG in 1998; this aircraft is 80%-90% different than the 737 Classics also in Southwest’s fleet.)
Kelly and his offices have said they are prepared to operate a third fleet type, an acknowledgement that they will have no choice since any advanced airplane will be markedly different than the 737. On a short-term basis, Southwest may be prepared to operate a fourth type until one series can be retired.
Kelly has on several occasions said words to the effect, “Airbus has a solution; Bombardier has a solution; Boeing does not have a solution and waiting until 2019 isn’t a solution, it’s only a promise.”
Southwest isn’t especially keen on the A320neo solution because it is, after all, only a compromise airplane. Its promised EIS is late 2015 (with the first available delivery slots now in 2018 after the orgy of orders at the Paris Air Show), so availablility vis-a-vis the Boeing Promise is now only marginally better. If Airbus could delivery the neo from 2016 (a possibility if Airbus increases production rates again), Southwest might be ready to jump. We consider this still a long shot at the moment.
Bombardier is the only manufacturer with a new airplane and the CS300 is perfectly sized to replace 25 737-500s and the incoming 86 717s from AirTran. BBD is now sold out into 2016, and it needs a 150-seat CS500 to be a serious contender to replace the 175 737-300s which carry 137 passengers in Southwest’s configuration. Southwest would like to upsize this airplane slightly and the CS300 can accommodate 149 passengers only by reducing seat pitch to 30 inches. This is OK for most airlines but Southwest is pretty firm that it wants 32 inches for passenger comfort.
A CS500 would require major investment by BBD and EIS wouldn’t be until 2017, reducing the interval to the Boeing Promise. Still, NPV analysis would be in BBD’s favor.
The outcome at Southwest: we think there is a reasonable chance BBD could win a CS300 order. The neo is probably longer odds because it is a compromise airplane. If Boeing re-engines, neo has no chance and a 737-700RE, which will deficient on operating economics vs. CS300, will be close enough so that Southwest probably would stay in the family.