Comair to start looking at replacements for BA-branded 737s

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South Africa's Comair expects to conduct another narrowbody aircraft evaluation within the next few years as it has not yet decided on 737 Classic replacements for the British Airways-branded portion of its fleet.

Comair operated a fleet of 737-200/300/400s across its BA franchise and low-cost unit Kulula unit until last year, when it added three leased 737-800s and retired its 737-200s. Comair plans to take two more leased 737-800s this year and earlier this month firmed up an order with Boeing for eight 737-800s, which joint CEO Gidon Novick says will be delivered from February 2012.

Novick tells ATI all 13 of the 737-800s which Comair has so far committed to acquiring will be operated under Kulula. He says at least for now the BA franchise will continue to be operated with 737-300/400s.

"We'll have to start making a plan for them [the BA aircraft] within next three years. It's not the end of the road," Novick says, referring to the overall fleet renewal programme at Comair.

He says for now the 737-300/400s suit the BA routes well but Comair expects the aircraft will need to be replaced over the next five to 10 years. Novick says theoretically the 737-300/400s could fly another 15 years "but the economics start to work against you".

It is unlikely the evaluation for the BA side of the business will have an identical outcome as Novick says the 737-800 is probably too large for Comair's BA routes. He says the 737-700 could be a better fit for the BA routes.

Comair has always been a loyal Boeing customer but it will consider non-Boeing types including Bombardier and Embraer. Novick says for the initial evaluation, covering the Kulula side of the business, the 737-800 was an "easy" choice over the Airbus A320.

"We have had a strong history of Boeing starting with -200s. We have also have a training centre which now includes a -200, -400 and-800 simulators," Novick explains. "We have all the Boeing infrastructure. All our pilots are Boeing trained. All the knowledge we have built up is with Boeing."

Novick says Boeing was also keen to make a good offer in order to retain a presence in the South African market. South African Airways last year elected to phase out its 737-800s in favour or an all Airbus fleet which will include additional A320s as well as new A330s.

While Comair has always been a 737 operator Novick points out that its purchase of eight 737-800s represents the first time the airline has acquired new aircraft. All five of the five 737-800s Comair is leasing ahead of the delivery of the eight purchased 737-800s are second hand aircraft.

Comair now operates 17 737-300/400s, with about half operating under BA and about half under Kulula. But the Kulula side of the business has been growing significantly faster. Novick says last year capacity was up 40% at Kulula and this year it will be up about another 10%.