One reason why Alaska Airlines’ purchase of Virgin America was so surprising is the difference in their two fleets: Alaska Airlines is “proudly all Boeing” when it comes to its mainline aircraft, while Virgin America leases the Airbus A319 and A320. Concerns were partially dismissed by executives. Managing two single fleets is a bit of an oxymoron but not impossible to envision. There’s even talk about preserving the Virgin America brand in some capacity. Besides, leases don’t represent a permanent commitment to the Airbus family.
But those Airbus aircraft could become a problem sooner rather than later, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal. Recent SEC filings show that Alaska Airlines and Virgin America each saw profits suffer due to costs associated with their negotiations. Furthermore, Virgin America had to pay $16.9 million dollars on maintenance, an increase of 33% over the past year. From the filing:
We are beginning to incur substantial costs for major maintenance visits for our aircraft, and because of the pattern of our historical fleet growth, we expect to have several aircraft undergoing major maintenance at roughly the same time.
This doesn’t bode well for the combined company and may encourage executives to accelerate their plans, if any, to return to a true single fleet operated by Boeing aircraft. That will be difficult as Alaska Airlines continues expanding to new destinations. Spare capacity just doesn’t exist.
Alaska Airlines’ average fleet age is also an issue, and one that it’s making an effort to correct with over 50 Boeing 737-900ER, MAX 8, and MAX 9 aircraft on order while it retires some older planes like the 737-400 Combi from passenger service. But even this wouldn’t be enough to replace all 66 Airbus aircraft that are currently leased.