Icelandair is, arguably, one of the few carriers that were very heavily affected by the Boeing 737 MAX crisis. While such giant as Southwest Airlines, another all-Boeing operator, had the scale to cover for the absence of the grounded aircraft, Icelandair did not have such luxury. And the company’s financial results reflect that, as highlighted by the airline itself:

“The suspension has already had significant adverse effects on the Company’s operations and profitability and will continue to do so while the suspension remains in place,” states a presentation discussing Icelandair’s financial results dated February 6, 2020.

However, a little spicy detail was also included in the same presentation: the current fleet is “under review.” While the 737 MAX suspension has delayed the work of the review, Icelandair expects the results to be published in the next few months. And Icelandair has quite a big issue to solve – where does it go next with its aircraft? Currently, three options are on the table: to maintain the current strategy, introduce Airbus aircraft into the fleet, or switch to an all-Airbus fleet.

But what would be the best option for the airline?

Currently operated aircraft

Icelandair started 2020 with 31 Boeing aircraft: 

 
 

Icelandair fleet composition as of February 1, 2020, according to the carrier. Image: AeroTime.

Prior to global regulators grounding the newest iteration of the MAX in March 2019, Boeing was supposed to deliver three jets in 2019, five in 2020, and two in 2021 to Keflavik International Airport (KEF) in Iceland, completing the carrier’s initial order. Now, Icelandair expects to receive only three new 737s by the end of 2020, hindering the airline’s ability to grow or to profit from its current routes.

After all, despite its trials and tribulations, the 737 MAX remains a very efficient aircraft. Icelandair indicates that the MAX uses 37% less fuel than the 757-200 and 14% than the 737 NextGeneration, the previous version of Boeing’s best-selling narrow-body aircraft family.

But even if we were to take out the 737 MAX crisis out of the equation, Icelandair has a problem: an aging fleet that is in dire need of replacing. According to planespotters.net data, the airline’s average aircraft is 20.1 years old, with some Boeing 757s approaching their 30-year mark.

Finding substitutes for the 757 and the 767

While the airline is currently leasing three Boeing 737NG aircraft to cover for the absence of the MAX, Icelandair was forced to keep the older 757s running, stated the presentation discussing Q4 2019 financial results.

Crucially, the 757s can travel almost 700 km further compared to the 737 MAX, making some of the routes Icelandair operates unviable if it were to replace the 757s with the 737 MAX. While theoretically the newest 737 iteration could fly from the Icelandic capital to Miami, Seattle or Anchorage, for example, due to the safety requirements of aircraft having enough spare fuel to either divert or have contingency fuel if weather conditions are unfavorable or routes have to be changed, it is unable to do so practically, in addition to Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards (ETOPS) certifications.

Furthermore, the airline’s four “new” 767-300ER aircraft, which Icelandair acquired in 2016, are not the same shiny new frames that left Boeing’s facilities in the late ’90s and early ’00s: the average age of the wide-bodies is 21.1 years, states planespotters.net data. While on one hand acquiring second-hand aircraft allows the airline to save cash (Icelandair invested $89 million into aircraft in Q2 2016, the same quarter it acquired the two 767s), costs to run these aircraft accumulate over time as they have to go through C and 4C checks. According to a report published by El Al Tech, the Boeing 767 has to go through its C-check for its systems every 6,000 Flight Hours or every 18 months and the structure of the aircraft has to be checked every 3,000 Flight Cycles or every 18 months. Meanwhile, 4C checks for the plane’s systems are done every 24,000 Flight Hours or 72 months, while the structural 4C checks need to take place every 12,000 Flight Cycles or 72 months.