The last time Southwest Airlines gave serious consideration to Airbus, Boeing was weighing plans for an all-new airplane to replace the 737 at the end of this decade. It was 2011, and Southwest was getting restless. There was “too much risk in waiting that long for a fuel-efficient airplane” from Boeing, said the late Southwest Airlines founder and Chairman Emeritus Herb Kelleher in a 2016 interview with The Wall Street Journal. “And we were serious about bringing in the [A320]Neo because of the fuel efficiency,” Kelleher recounted and Airbus was “tremendously receptive.” Once Boeing committed to add new engines to the 737 to create the Max “we came back home.”
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Eight years later, Southwest is again kicking the tires of another airplane. The Air Currentreported in April that the airline had visited a European operator of the A220-300 as part of a technical evaluation of the aircraft type.
But the visit to Europe underscored that the dynamics of adding a different aircraft type to Southwest’s fleet are, in fact, divorced from the safety crisis facing the 737 Max, yet made significantly more complicated by the acute strain that the grounding has put on Boeing’s most important customer.
“We put our future in the hands of Boeing and the Max and we’re grounded,” said Southwest’s Chief Executive Gary Kelly in a recent interview with CNBC.
Had the last year not unfolded the way it did, Southwest would have more than a half-dozen 737 Max 7 aircraft flying in its fleet. The shrunken single-aisle’s certification was first stalled by the Federal Aviation Administration’s late-2018 shutdown and then indefinitely by the twin crashes of Max 8 aircraft in Indonesia and Ethiopia and the grounding that followed. That sidelined its fleet of 34 Max 8s and threw open the doors to a 2020 re-evaluation of one of the key attributes of Southwest’s strategy — its exclusive relationship with Boeing and the 737.
“We’ll address next year, whether the strategy we’ve deployed for 48 years is the strategy we want for the next 48 years,” said Kelly of its relationship with Boeing. “It’s a strategy question in two senses: Are they the right partner going forward, number one, but number two, the wisdom of having one aircraft type.”
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