MIAMI — Delta Air Lines is taking a “serious look” at ordering the Bombardier CSeries, according to comments from President Ed Bastian on the carrier’s fourth quarter and year end 2015 earnings call. Prompted by a question from a journalist, Bastian was very complimentary of the CSeries as technology.

“They brought the CSeries to Atlanta right before Christmas and we met with Fred Cromer, President of Bombardier and it’s a pretty impressive airplane,” said Bastian, adding that “The geared turbofan is really the first big innovation since the Boeing 787 revolutionized the composite structure for the body, the fuselage of the airplane. So, we actually think that at the right price it’s quite a competitive airplane particularly given the engine technology. So we’re taking a very serious look at it.”

CSeries buy would fit Delta’s network

Delta already operates a large fleet of 100-120 seat aircraft, including 91 ex-AirTran Boeing 717s that seat 110 passengers in a 3-class configuration (12F / 20Y+ / 78Y). It also recently added 20 used Embraer E190s previously operated by Air Canada, and has positioned itself as a buyer on the market for other used 100-seat aircraft.

Over the last five years, Delta has steadily used the 717 to draw down its fleet of 50-seat regional jets. Delta achieved this by moving 76-seat jets to markets previously served by 50-seaters and consolidating frequencies, and doing the same for 76-seat jet markets with the 717. But while Delta has already made strong progress on this cutover, there is definitely further movement that can happen on up-gauging certain markets to mainline.

The CSeries offers mainline levels of comfort in a 100-seat package, as well as excellent operating economics and the range to operate longer and thinner routes. With the flexibility to operate high frequency service from Atlanta to Newark or a long and thin route from Detroit to Spokane, the CSeries is an excellent fit for Delta’s network – at the right price. And a fleet of CSeries would be a great eventual replacement.

Consistent with Delta’s fleet acquisition philosophy

That final clause is really the key driver behind Delta’s interest. Despite its technological superiority, Bombardier has struggled to build momentum around the CSeries thanks to inconsistent financial backing from management and weak sales skill. The airframer has not won a new firm order for the CSeries since winter 2014 (though it did pick up commitments such as LOIs in 2015).

Because of this position, Bombardier needs a high profile buyer for the CSeries and it needs one fast. This puts Delta in a very favorable negotiating position to wring an excellent deal out of Bombardier. Delta of course is famous for operating a fleet of aged aircraft and scouring the used market for deals (such as its 65-aircraft strong fleet of MD-90s). But just characterizing Delta as a buyer of used aircraft is an imperfect characterization of its fleet planning strategy. Instead, a better way to look at Delta’s fleet planning is that it looks for good value, whether that comes from new or used aircraft. Its 2014 order for A350s and A330neos is testament to the willingness to buy new planes, and all indications are that Bombardier is willing to give Delta a price where this makes sense.

What will United do?

United has also long been rumored to be a customer for the CSeries or another 100-140 seat jet, tied in part to its contract with pilots. The CSeries definitely makes a lot of sense for United’s route network, more so than the Embraer products, but indications are that United might actually go in a different direction by buying Boeing 737-700s. Bombardier was surely hoping for an order from United, but Delta may well have stepped into the void.