When Delta Air Lines Co. (NYSE: DAL) pilots rejected the company’s contract offer this past summer, the company said it would not go ahead with a promised purchase of 20 used and 40 new single-aisle planes from The Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA). The airline was set to buy 40 new 737-900ERs, the closest thing Boeing sells to the 757s that Delta wanted to retire.
Delta’s cancellation of the order for new 737-900ERs cost Boeing at least $4 billion at list prices. The airline had offered to buy the Boeing jets and the smaller E190 regional jets from Embraer SA (NYSE: ERJ) as an incentive to get its pilots to go along with the contract offer. These smaller planes would have required more pilots, but the new pilots would have been paid on a different scale from current pilots.
Boeing’s narrowbody 757, which went out of production in 2005, flew what the industry calls long, thin routes, carrying some 200 passengers distances of around 4,000 to 5,000 nautical miles. United and American both operate 757s across the Atlantic, and the longest commercial flight currently flown by the 757 connects New York non-stop with Berlin, a distance of slightly more than 4,000 nautical miles. The 757 can only fly this far with fewer than 190 passengers.
Delta has been flying its 757s both internationally and domestically. The airline currently includes 119 of the 757-200s and 16 of the 757-300s in its fleet. The -200s have an average age of 20.4 years and the -300s have an average age of 12.6 years. The oldest -200 airframe in the fleet flew its first flight in August of 1985, just over 30 years ago. All told Delta still flies seven -200s that were built in the 1980s.
Boeing has been considering a replacement for the 757, but has not yet announced a decision. Rival Airbus Group SE announced a new version of its A321 narrowbody jet last summer, the A321LR, which the company says is aimed precisely at the so-called ‘Middle of Market’ segment that has been defined and owned by the 757.
Fortunately for Boeing the Airbus A321LR has some problems. United Airlines believes the plane’s capacity is too small. United’s 757s fly 169 passengers and American’s planes are set-up to fly 179 passengers, compared with 164 for the A321LR.
Boeing’s customers are interested in a plane that carries 250 passengers on routes of five to nine hours, according to a June report at The Wall Street Journal. The 787-9 has a capacity of 250 to 290 and the 787-10 is even larger. And the range is much longer than needed. That adds up to planes that cost too much. Even the 787-8, with a capacity ranging from 210 to 250, has a specified minimum range of 7,650 nautical miles, a third more than the long, thin routes the 757 serves.
When Airbus launched its A321LR in January it saw a market size of about 1,000 evenly divided between new planes and replacements for the 757. Boeing has not yet said how big it thinks the market for the replacement might be, but the company built 1,050 of the original.
Delta’s contract with its pilots is targeted for revision by December 31st, but will remain in place even if the deadline passes. A strike is possible, but would be unusual.