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Delta in talks with Boeing to launch NMA: Bastian

Delta Air Lines and Boeing have discussed the possibility of the carrier launching the proposed New Mid-market Airplane (NMA), as Delta seeks a replacement for more than 100 ageing mid-market aircraft.

"We've had discussions with Boeing about being a potential launch customer," says Ed Bastian, chief executive of Delta, at the National Press Club in Washington DC today.

While Bastian uses the past tense to describe the launch customer discussions, which likely occurred during meetings he had with Boeing in March, he explains that Delta cannot commit to ordering the NMA until Boeing's board decides to build the aircraft. Until then, the airframer and Delta are in the "discussions phase", he says.

In addition, any launch order will depend on the final parameters of the NMA, says Bastian.

The NMA family will seat 220-270 passengers with a range of roughly 5,000nm (9,260km) when it enters service, which Boeing forecasts by 2025. The airframer aims to achieve trip costs roughly 40% better than current generation widebodies, like the 767.

Delta would order the NMA as a successor to its Boeing 757-300s that seat 234 passengers, and 767s that seat 208-261 passengers, says Bastian. Both aircraft types are scheduled for retirement in the next decade.

The airline operates 16 757-300s with an average age of 15.4 years, and 79 767s with an average age of 21 years, Flight Fleets Analyzer shows. It operates both 767-300ER and 767-400ER variants.

LAUNCH BREAK

The idea that Delta could launch the NMA is one of the more significant breaks by Bastian from his predecessor Richard Anderson. Anderson, who led the airline from 2007 to 2016, publicly eschewed new technology aircraft, calling the risks too great compared to the benefits of lower capital cost existing technology.

“My balance sheet is not equipped to take [airframers'] technical risk," he said on the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 in an interview with Airline Business in 2014. "Once those airplanes are proven, then we’ll be in a position to be able to operate them.”

For example, US Boeing 787 launch operator United Airlines was impacted in the multi-month grounding of the type in 2013 due to battery issues. The Chicago-based carrier's then-chief executive Jeff Smisek called the aircraft a "fairly expensive piece of sculpture to have on the ground", though he did not provide a number for what the grounding cost United beyond that it was forced to postpone a number of route launches.

United is also interested in the NMA, though executives have not expressed an interest in launching the programme.

Since 2014, Delta has ordered the A350 and Bombardier CSeries, though deliveries of both occurred – or will occur – years after the respective launch operators took the first models.

Bastian hopes Boeing will take the lessons it learned from the 787, which in addition to the battery issues was delivered years late, and apply them to the NMA.

This includes the question whether the engine manufacturers are able to meet the 2025 entry-into-service target, as they continue to face issues meeting delivery timelines for current aircraft programmes. Engine technology is critical to the NMA meeting its efficiency targets.

CFM International, Pratt and Whitney (P&W) and Rolls-Royce are all competing to supply engines to the NMA. P&W plans a scaled-up version of its geared turbofan (GTF) and Rolls-Royce the so-called UltraFan with a reduction gear.

Delta and P&W recently signed an agreement for the airline's MRO division Delta TechOps to be the exclusive maintenance provider for the GTF engines on the Airbus A320neo family and CSeries in the Americas.

As Boeing finalises the NMA, Delta's biggest consideration on a possible launch order will be getting the "cheapest price possible", says Bastian - maintaining a sentiment frequently espoused by his former boss.

Updated with further explanation of Bastian's use of "had" in his comment on discussions with Boeing.

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