Delta Air Lines, known for snapping up bargain-priced single-aisle planes, is shopping for larger, used long-haul jets.
A glut of widebody models coming off leases is creating an “aircraft bubble,” Chief Executive Richard Anderson said Wednesday. While no deal is imminent, he said Delta repeatedly gets offers to add twin-aisle jetliners such as Boeing’s 777-200 and Airbus’ A330-200.
“The aircraft market is going to be ripe for Delta over the course of the next 12 to 36 months,” Anderson said on a conference call after the airline’s third-quarter earnings report. “Prices are going to get lower.”
That’s good news for Delta, but not necessarily for Boeing. After Anderson spoke Wednesday, the plane-maker’s shares lost $6.07, falling 4.3 percent to end at $134.22, reversing an earlier gain. That was Boeing’s biggest drop since last Oct. 22.
Delta’s moves are closely watched, and often copied. Delta’s embrace of midlife 777s may also help shore up values and kindle more interest among the airline’s rivals, just as Delta did with Boeing’s narrowbody 717.
The carrier’s strategy is based on two pillars: taking advantage of lower capital costs for used planes and reaping a longer commercial life span for those aircraft with its in-house maintenance crews.
“Delta has a relatively old fleet and a really good maintenance organization,” said George Ferguson, senior air-transport analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “Richard is an opportunist when it comes to buying airplanes.”
Prices for used 777-200ERs are being damped now by planes from Malaysian Airline System, Kenya Airways and TransAero coming back onto the market. The 777-200ER has amassed 422 orders, features a cabin that typically seats 313 people and boasts a range of 7,065 nautical miles.
Resale values have dropped as much as 14 percent this year, and lease rates are down as much as 10 percent, according to data compiled by Flightglobal’s Ascend consulting firm. Models outfitted with Pratt & Whitney engines, for example, range from $25 million for the oldest to $78 million for a 2013 vintage.
Anderson said Delta is seeing even lower offers: a 9- or 10-year-old 777 on the market for as little as $10 million. Singapore Airlines has dozens of such widebodies coming off lease or retiring soon, Anderson said. Companies routinely approach Delta because there are only a handful of carriers capable of taking a dozen or so of the jets, he said.
Delta already operates 18 of Boeing’s 777s. By taking on more, Delta could bolster its twin-aisle fleet while finding another replacement for the Boeing 747 jumbo jets that have served as workhorses on trans-Pacific routes for two decades. Delta has also ordered two types of Airbus widebodies, A350s and A330neos, worth $14 billion at list prices.
Adding a 777-200ER would let Delta do more point-to-point flying in Asia and South America without a stopover, Ferguson said. The price Anderson cited would make such a deal economical, even with the expense of retrofitting and upgrading cabins with lie-flat seats priced upward of $300,000, he said.