By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
Alaska Airlines plans to buy 200 new airplanes for the decade ahead as part of an aggressive growth plan, and the troubled Boeing 737 Max — grounded for almost a year and with clearance to fly again still months away — will be a big part of its enlarged jet fleet.
A message posted internally this week informed Alaska’s pilots that the company has purchased two 737 Max simulators to train its pilots. One will be operational by the end of June and the second by year end.
“While we don’t yet know the exact makeup of our future fleet, we do know the 737 Max will be a significant part of it,” the pilots were told.
The one uncertainty hanging over the fleet plan is whether Alaska will keep for the long term any of the Airbus jets it inherited from its 2016 acquisition of Virgin America, or phase them out and revert to an all-Boeing airline.
In a message to pilots, Alaska’s Vice President of Flight Operations John Ladner, said the airline may choose to keep a number of the large Airbus A321 jets and, if so, “they will likely be deployed primarily in our Seattle hub.”
The Max crisis means the Seattle-based carrier will likely extend leases on some of its Airbus planes, which will certainly remain in Alaska’s fleet through at least 2025, the message says.
Travelers will see many more of the Airbus jets at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport starting this fall because Alaska will wind down its Airbus pilot base in Los Angeles and shift it to Seattle.
Getting ready for the Max
Alaska in 2012 ordered 37 Boeing 737 Maxs. It was supposed to have three of the jets by now, but has none yet because of the grounding of the aircraft following two fatal accidents.
Boeing is currently targeting midsummer for winning Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to fly the airplane again, though because a certification flight has been pushed out to late April, that target may still slip.
Alaska cannot begin the necessary Max pilot training until that clearance is given. Then the airplanes already built will have to be taken out of storage and readied to fly. It will take at least a month after the Max is ungrounded before any airline could be ready to fly passengers on the airplane.
Alaska hopes to have 10 Max 9s delivered by year end and is already prepping for them.
Nigel Sargent, director of the Alaska’s flight simulator operation, is quoted in the internal posting saying that his team “has been working on an accelerated timeline to certify the simulator in order to help get our pilots through training before we begin flying the Max.”
“There are only a handful of Max sims in North America, so it’s great that we’ll have one,” he added.
The Maxs are critical to Alaska’s expansion plans.
At employee meetings in January, management outlined the airline’s strategy over the next five years, including plans to buy 100 new jets to replace older aircraft that are retired and 100 more to grow the fleet over the coming decade.
Ladner wrote that this growth strategy also entails “hiring thousands more employees, flying millions more guests, and generating billions more in revenue.”
He said the announcement last week of an enhanced partnership with American Airlines and Alaska’s proposed joining of the Oneworld global airline alliance “allows us to aggressively grow our airline.” He said it will help address the strategic challenge of competition from Delta.
Conjuring a tantalizing future possibility for the pilots, he added that “although doing our own widebody international flying is not part of our strategic plan today, this relationship doesn’t preclude us from exploring it in the long term.”
He called the alliance “the first step toward international long-haul becoming a viable option for us.”
Airbus jet base in Seattle
Alaska has said publicly that 61 Airbus A319s and 320s in its current fleet “are the airplanes that are the primary candidates for replacement” as it buys new jets. It wants larger aircraft and is looking at the Boeing 737 Max 9, the 737 Max 10 and the Airbus A321neo.
It’s deploying the 10 A321neos currently in its fleet on lucrative transcontinental flights.
On an earnings call with financial analysts last month, Nat Pieper, Alaska’s senior vice president responsible for fleet planning, promised a decision by year-end on whether to retain Airbus jets in the fleet long-term and on which planes Alaska will buy.
Over the next five years, though, Alaska will fly both Boeing and Airbus jets, with many of the latter to be based in Seattle in future.
“A primary component of our 2025 Strategy is to continue to defend and bolster our market share in our key hub of Seattle,” Ladner wrote in another message to Alaska’s pilots this week. “This means we will deploy a significant portion of our current Airbus fleet in Seattle over the coming months and years.”
As a result, Alaska will gradually move its current L.A. Airbus pilot base to Seattle, starting with 25 flight crews moving in October, and a similar number in both December and January, Ladner wrote.
The L.A. Airbus pilot base will close no later than the end of 2021. At the same time, Ladner wrote, Alaska will grow its Boeing pilot base in L.A. by a similar amount.
Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan emphasized that the base switch doesn’t indicate any less commitment by the airline to its hub at LAX .