It increasingly clear that this pandemic provides US airlines with a great opportunity to rationalize fleets that had grown organically based on the near ending demand growth. Older aircraft were retired after they were really old – especially at Delta. Fuel cost spikes caused American and United to refresh single-aisles, and Delta thought better to buy a refinery.  When oil prices dropped again, and to lower levels than before the spike, Delta had made the right bet.

But that was then.  We are in a whole new kind of world today.  The US fleet is far too big for the demand.  Airlines have retired a lot of aircraft – but has it been enough?  Some of the recently parked aircraft might be brought back into service. United says it won’t retire aircraft. For the airline industry, hope springs eternal.

Looking at the big four US airlines we have something interesting to share.  The information is based on data through July 20th. We expect jets to do more flying, but there are trends that catch the eye. From March we note rather broad swings in fleet deployment as airlines scrambled to find a sweet spot to optimize fleet to disappearing traffic.  It was an impossible task.

Starting American Airlines. Look at how many aircraft types the airline has in the table bottom left. Then look at how many of these aircraft are doing the fleet work.  The 737-800, A319, and have become much busier while relatively, the other models are doing less work.  

Next, Delta Air Lines. It seems clear that Delta needs to slim down its fleet – does it really need 16 types for domestic service? There appears to be much confusion in fleet deployment with one exception – the E175 shows up clearly as a solution to the turmoil.  Another highlight in the data is the A221, only 4% of the fleet but more active than that number implies. The A319 and A321 appear to be useful, but not so much the A320.  Delta has retired its MD fleet and its 757.  This helps, but with so many tools to deploy, it must be tough optimizing.

Next, we look at Southwest Airlines.  Fleet simplicity is the key to the airline’s success.  Ignore the MAX fleet which is inactive.  The list shows what the airline has in its MAX plans and has been been given a tail number.  Note that in April the 737-800s were deployed much more than before, but by July it seems the airline was bringing back more of its 737-700s.  Indeed when looking at other data, Southwest has been the most aggressive in rebuilding its schedule

Finally, here is the United Airlines data. Another airline with too many types it seems. However, we can clearly see the impact of the E175 – this airplane is a COVID winner.  At American, Delta, and United.  About one-third of United’s flights are using E175s.  United is making extensive use of regional jets overall. We also see the A319 doing better than might have been expected at all three airlines. The 737-800 and -900 are seeing much less activity at United than their fleet size suggests we might expect. 

In summary –

  • Among single-aisle mainline aircraft, the A319 accounts for 9% of the fleet but is doing than in flights. The 737-700 accounts for 15% of the fleet and is doing nearly double that in flights.
  • Among regional jets, the E175 accounts for 30% of the fleet and accounts for ~40% of flights. 
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