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Alaska to decide in 2019 whether to retain two aircraft types

Alaska Air Group will decide in 2019 if it will continue operating both Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies or shift back to a single-type fleet, says chief operating officer Ben Minicucci.

Minicucci, speaking during a presentation to investors earlier this week, did not elaborate, and the company declines to provide further comment.

But questions about Alaska's long-term fleet plan have been unanswered since the company acquired Virgin America in late 2016.

Prior to that deal, Alaska's subsidiary Alaska Airlines operated only Boeing 737s – a strategy viewed as contributing to Alaska's success as a profitable, fast-growing company.

With the acquisition, Alaska gained Virgin America's fleet of A320-family aircraft. In the two years since, Alaska has been integrating the types into a single network and combining pilots and flight attendants into single employee groups.

Minicucci says the fleet integration work proved costlier than Alaska had anticipated. Indeed, executives have said the entire merger proved more expensive than Alaska anticipated, driving down profits in recent quarters.

Transitioning to a mixed fleet, which requires two maintenance programmes, two crew groups and "two operating methodologies" caused a "step change in complexity", adds executive vice-president of planning and strategy Shane Tackett.

Alaska's pilot productivity will actually decrease in 2019 as the company trains 737 pilots to fly Airbus, and vice-versa, Tackett adds. That training is required because Alaska is merging pilots into a single seniority list under which pilots can "choose which aircraft they want to fly," Tackett says.

Alaska's fleet includes 162 737s and 71 Airbus narrowbodies, and the company has orders for another 36 737s and 32 A320neo-family aircraft, according to Flight Fleets Analyzer.

Executives have previously said that if Alaska decides to revert to an all-737 fleet, it will likely not divest Airbus until leases expire on those aircraft.

The last of those leases expires in 2030, Fleets Analyzer shows.

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