They have flown nothing but Boeing 737s for nearly fifty years. Will Southwest Airlines order Airbus A220s to replace ageing 737-700s? When they already have orders for 30 737-7 MAX aircraft? Before aviation authorities around the world grounded the MAX, it would have been a ludicrous question. Now observers aren’t quite so sure.
In many ways, Southwest Airlines are the archetypical low-cost carrier. They started the concept of quick turnarounds between flights. They began the point-to-point operating model, working from different bases, instead of the hub-and-spoke model. And they are one of Boeing’s most loyal customers, currently owning 734 Boeing 737-family jets. They always stuck to a single aircraft type (leased 727s being only a brief exception), reaping the single-type benefits.
These advantages include lower maintenance and repair costs. Obviously Southwest only need to stock parts and train mechanics for a single family of aircraft. When scheduling flights, they know that they can substitute a plane with mechanical issues with any other one in their fleet. Some newly-renovated aircraft now have an extra row, thanks to thinner and lighter seats. However, Southwest are expected to homogenise them quickly, like other airlines are.
Another advantage is of course pilot training. Southwest’s 737-700 and -800 aircraft are both NG models, with little to separate them other than length. They have a common type rating, meaning that the company can have common flight training for its entire pool of pilots. The newer MAX models have the same type-rating as the NG models. However, pilots will now have to receive more substantial difference training between the two, than originally thought.
A Southwest A220’s Advantages
In the other end of the spectrum, a purchase of new Airbus A220s has some things going for it. Two types offer advantages in versatility, for routes with less or seasonal demand. While a Boeing 737-700 (or MAX 7) will, in theory, do the same, an aircraft that is smaller and lighter overall will be more efficient.
In such scenarios, the A220 will still be making money with even fewer passengers on board. The Airbus A220 seems to have a lot of fans, for exactly this kind of efficiency. Airlines worldwide have grounded many thousands of aircraft, but the majority of the few A220s made so far are flying.
The other advantage from having multiple types is knowing that half your fleet will still be airworthy, if the other half has a problem. That, of course, is a double-edged sword: multiple types give you more possibilities for such problems. And losing half your fleet won’t exactly be workable either, in the longer term. The point is that even without the A220, with a single aircraft supplier, Southwest already HAD a big chunk of its fleet grounded.
A Dwindling Timeline
Whatever they choose to do, they need to make a decision relatively soon, given the time aircraft manufacturers need to fulfil orders. Airbus’ A220 order books are nothing like those of the 737 or indeed the larger Airbus models. But they are keeping their production rate relatively low, so deliveries of new orders will still take time.
“We absolutely do need the smaller airplane”, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said, discussing Southwest’s third quarter earnings. “We have a ton of 737-700s that are coming up for retirement over the next several years.”
In April last year, soon after the MAX fleet was grounded, Southwest representatives went for a trip to Europe, to “kick the tyres” of the Airbus A220. Ever since, the discussion about them possibly buying the baby Airbus keeps coming back. With every delay of the MAX, it seems more likely. Or less and less unlikely.
While there is no open rift between the airline and Boeing, it is clear that the grounding of the MAX fleet impacted Southwest quite significantly. Equally, a Southwest order for Airbus A220s would be devastating for Boeing, potentially making them re-examine their single-aisle future.