Do Airline Deals Favor Boeing or Airbus?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Among the assets US Airways ( LCC) would bring to a merger is one that its potential partner totally lacks -- an aircraft order.

If United ( UAUA) were to merge with US Airways, it would gain access to an order for 92 narrowbody and widebody Airbus aircraft, with a list price around $10 billion, making the France-based airplane maker a likely winner if the two carriers successfully complete a deal.

That would mean Airbus could become the primary supplier for one of the two biggest U.S. airlines, a position it has never occupied.

The jury is still out, however, on whether Boeing ( BA) or Airbus would benefit more from a proposed merger between Delta ( DAL) and Northwest ( NWA).

Delta has been a Boeing customer, while Northwest's big jet fleet is divided between planes made by Airbus, Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas, now part of Boeing. Delta CEO Richard Anderson has indicated the combined carrier would order from both manufacturers.

One thing is certain -- there is little unity in the fleets. Among the approximately 450 large jets at Delta and the 300 at Northwest, the only common aircraft is the Boeing 757, of which there are about 200. The combined fleet, says Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, would include "a plane for every occasion."

In the industry downsizing that took place after Sept. 11, many carriers used the opportunity to increase the commonality of their fleet types by shedding airplanes, but there has been no indication so far that a combined Delta and Northwest would follow that trend.

Looking ahead, Aboulafia says Boeing would benefit from the merger because Delta is committed to Boeing. It recently took delivery of a Boeing 777-200LR, its first new aircraft in six years, and plans on getting more jets. "There is no question that now, they will have a management heavily inclined toward Boeing," Aboulafia says.

However, aviation consultant Scott Hamilton contends that, "despite the conventional wisdom, I am not willing to concede that the new Delta is a lock for Boeing." Hamilton notes that Northwest grew its Airbus fleet during Anderson's tenure and that the Delta CEO has indicated the combined carrier will continue to have a balanced fleet.

Currently, Northwest flies about 130 Airbus narrowbodies and is the world's largest operator of the A330, with nearly three dozen of them. It also has 18 Boeing 787s on order, with options for 50 more.

As for a United and US Airways combination, Aboulafia says Airbus dodged a bullet when merger talks between United and Continental ( CAL) broke off, because Continental has an all-Boeing fleet and its management would likely have run the company.

By contrast, "the management of US Airways is the most pro-Airbus management of all U.S. airlines, and United has some Airbuses too," he says. "So Airbus looks to be a lot better off."

The carrier's widebody order, reaffirmed at the Paris Air Show last June, is for 22 A350XWBs, starting in 2014. US Airways is the only U.S. carrier to have selected the A350 instead of the 787 as its widebody plane of the future.

The order also includes 10 A330s, with deliveries starting in 2009, and 60 A320s, arriving between 2010 and 2013. Most will replace Boeing aircraft. Within a few years, Boeing's representation in US Airways' fleet would be limited to 20 of its 757s. At United, about two-thirds of the 460 mainline aircraft are Boeing.