What Will Happen To Southwest Airlines' Fleet When There Are No New Boeing 737 Variants? (2024)

Summary

  • Southwest's loyalty to Boeing has influenced production decisions for 737 variants like the 737-700 and 737 MAX 7.
  • The airline faces a future challenge with no immediate replacement for the problem-ridden 737 MAX.
  • Limited options for Southwest to replace its 737 MAX fleet point towards Airbus A220-300, A319neo, and A320neo as potential alternatives.

American budget airline Southwest Airlines has long since been a strong supporter of the Boeing 737 family, almost exclusively operating the popular twinjet except for a brief period of 727 operations. Today, the airline remains the world's largest operator of the Boeing 737, with over 815 of the type in its fleet and nearly 500 still on order.

Southwest's loyalty to the aircraft type has remained so valuable over the years to manufacturer Boeing that it has influenced production decisions for multiple different variants. Namely, the airline has been both the largest operator and launch customer of the smallest 737 variant, the 737-700, and its successor, the 737 MAX 7, which has yet to enter service.

What Will Happen To Southwest Airlines' Fleet When There Are No New Boeing 737 Variants? (1)

Photo: BCFC | Shutterstock

The airline, however, is facing a major issue that will undoubtedly impact its appearance in about 20 years. The Boeing 737 MAX is both problem-ridden and the latest generation of an ancient aircraft family, and as a result, it will likely be the final version of the narrowbody built.

Southwest, unfortunately, will be out of luck attempting to modernize its fleet in the future with new 737 variants, as it has throughout its extensive history. In this article, we will take a deeper look at what Southwest Airlines' options are when it cannot maintain a fleet of just 737 family jets.

The future of the small narrowbody market

The challenge that Southwest Airlines faces when it comes to replacing the 737 MAX 7 is that there are few aircraft on the market which currently match the capacity and performance of the smallest 737 variant. Moreover, Southwest will be in an even more challenging position considering that all the best alternatives for the aircraft are built by the rival manufacturer, Airbus.

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In the world of commercial aviation, relationships between airlines and manufacturers are crucial, as carriers can negotiate large discounts when ordering jets in bulk. Since its first revenue flight in 1971, Southwest has never once ordered a commercial airliner from Airbus, and the carrier would be forced to begin a relationship with a manufacturer it had long shirked.

What Will Happen To Southwest Airlines' Fleet When There Are No New Boeing 737 Variants? (2)

Photo:Bradley Caslin | Shutterstock

According to FlightGlobal, the airline actually considered the Airbus A220 as a potential replacement for its 737-700 series aircraft, but later dropped the five-abreast narrowbody from consideration. The carrier has, time and time again, pushed off the opportunity to diversify its fleet in favor of maintaining commonality with the Boeing 737 family.

There are two relatively modern narrowbody airliners that could eventually serve as an ideal replacement for Southwest's 737 MAX aircraft, with different jets optimized to serve as replacements for the carrier's MAX 7 and MAX 8 variants. The Airbus A220-300 and Airbus A319neo are likely to be the optimal replacement for the 737 MAX 7, while the A320neo comes closest in both performance, range and capacity to the 737 MAX 8.

The 737 MAX 7's replacement

Southwest Airlines currently operates its 737-700 aircraft and will operate its 737 MAX 7 jets with 150 passengers in a single-class configuration. As a result, the carrier will need to find an aircraft offering similar capacity to these jets, with the best options on the table being the A220-300 and the A319neo.

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The A220-300 is easier to analyze, and fits roughly within the capacity limits that Southwest currently maintains on its 737-700 jets. Breeze Airways, another low-cost carrier like Southwest, operates the A220-300 with a 137 seat configuration.

What Will Happen To Southwest Airlines' Fleet When There Are No New Boeing 737 Variants? (4)

However, it does so with a slightly different cabin setup, including both premium seats in a 2-2 configuration and other extra-legroom seats. With a standard 3-3 configuration throughout the cabin, the aircraft would be able to come close to maintaining similar capacity numbers as Southwest's 150-seat 737-700s.

The Airbus A319neo may also be another ideal replacement for these aircraft, though it has so far proven relatively unpopular with airlines. Despite a capacity of around 150-160, according to the manufacturer, only 62 A319neos have been ordered.

What Will Happen To Southwest Airlines' Fleet When There Are No New Boeing 737 Variants? (5)

Photo:Markus Mainka | Shutterstock

One final category that is important for Southwest to consider is the range of these prospective replacements. The range of these replacement jets in comparison to Southwest's current models is detailed in the table below:

Aircraft type:

Maximum range:

Boeing 737 MAX 7

3,800 nautical miles

Boeing 737-700

3,935 nautical miles

Airbus A319neo

3,750 nautical miles

Airbus A220-300

3,798 nautical miles

The 737 MAX 8's replacement

On both the 737 MAX 8 and 737-800, Southwest Airlines configures its jets with 175 seats, which leaves an extremely limited number of aircraft on the market that could potentially fill this long-term niche. In addition, both jets have a range of around 3,500 nautical miles.

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The Airbus A320neo is undoubtedly the best aircraft on the market today that could potentially fulfill this niche long-term. The aircraft offers the following specifications:

Category:

Airbus A320neo specification:

Capacity:

~170 seats

Range:

3,500 nautical miles

As a result, it is fairly clear, from a capacity and range perspective, the A320 would be an excellent replacement for Southwest's 737 fleet. Therefore, the airline could look rather similar to how it does today with a fleet made of A320neo family aircraft.

What Will Happen To Southwest Airlines' Fleet When There Are No New Boeing 737 Variants? (7)

Photo: Markus Mainka | Shutterstock

Furthermore, fleet commonality has consistently been of importance to Southwest, and by replacing its 737 MAX 7s with A319neos, and 737 MAX 8s with A320neos, the carrier could maintain similar advantages by only operating just one aircraft family. Nonetheless, the transition from Boeing to Airbus jets would be a big change for the airline, and require new training for all pilots, maintenance staff and cabin crew.

However, predicting this far into the future can be challenging, and one can only speculate as to which new aircraft might hit the market at this time. Nonetheless, the only certainty is that Southwest will have to make some difficult decisions regarding the future of its fleet.

  • What Will Happen To Southwest Airlines' Fleet When There Are No New Boeing 737 Variants? (8)
    Southwest Airlines

    IATA/ICAO Code:
    WN/SWA

    Airline Type:
    Low-Cost Carrier

    Hub(s):
    Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Dallas Love Field, Denver International Airport, Harry Reid International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Houston Hobby Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Midway International Airport, Oakland International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

    Year Founded:
    1967

    CEO:
    Robert Jordan

    Country:
    United States
What Will Happen To Southwest Airlines' Fleet When There Are No New Boeing 737 Variants? (2024)

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