In 2010, in a bid to slash capital spending, Delta deferred all of its 787 deliveries to 2020 and beyond. In late 2014, it ordered 50 modern widebodies from Airbus — with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2017 — casting more doubt on its continued interest in the Dreamliner.

Delta has ordered dozens of widebodies from Airbus recently. Image source: Delta Air Lines.

Last week, Delta Air Lines took the final step, officially canceling its entire order for 18 787-8 Dreamliners.

Delta pulls the trigger

Delta’s decision to cancel its Dreamliner order had been anticipated by airline analysts for many years. When Delta ordered the 737-900ER narrowbody plane from Boeing several years ago, it negotiated the right to substitute those 737-900ER orders for its existing Dreamliner orders on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

This unusual agreement may explain the timing of the order cancellation announcement. Based on Boeing’s current price list, 18 787-8 Dreamliners would be roughly equivalent in price to 40 737-900ERs. Given that Delta only has 51 remaining orders for 737-900ERs, it may have been running out of time to cancel its Dreamliner order penalty-free.

Delta doesn’t need more widebodies — for now

Since 2013, Delta Air Lines has ordered 60 widebodies from Airbus: 10 A330-300s, 25 A350-900s, and 25 A330-900neos. Eight of those planes have already been delivered, with the other 52 set to arrive over the next six years or so.

Delta will receive its first A350 later this year. Image source: Airbus.

These planes will mainly be used to replace Delta’s remaining Boeing 747s and its older 767s. Delta will retire its last seven 747s in 2017. Among its 767s configured for international service, 24 were built between 1990 and 1996 and will be ripe for retirement between now and the early 2020s.

However, the majority of Delta’s internationally configured 767s — 55 to be exact — were built between 1997 and 2002. Given Delta’s penchant for keeping older aircraft in service for as long as possible, these planes are likely to remain in its fleet until the mid-late 2020s.

Thus, Delta already has more than enough Airbus widebodies on order to meet its replacement needs over the next six years or so. Meanwhile, rampant overcapacity on international routes limits the number of attractive long-haul expansion opportunities in the near term. Furthermore, facility constraints at Delta’s new transpacific hub in Seattle will likely prevent the company from adding new international routes there until at least 2019.