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American Airlines leads shift to smaller jets for flights still flying in US

April 16, 2020
8 min read
American Airlines leads shift to smaller jets for flights still flying in US
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Travelers on American Airlines' departure just after 7 a.m. from Nashville to Dallas/Fort Worth have long enjoyed a ride on one of the carrier's Airbus A321s, its largest narrow-body jet by seating capacity.

Not any more. The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier — like airlines everywhere — has been forced to cull capacity and ground aircraft as the novel coronavirus pandemic has ravaged demand for air travel around the globe. That morning departure from Nashville (BNA) to American's Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) hub will be on an Airbus A319, the airline's smallest mainline narrow-body since deciding to retire its Embraer E190s early, beginning this May.

American's shift to a 128-seat A319 from an A321 with more than 180 seats on the Nashville-Dallas/Fort Worth run is a sample of a larger trend towards smaller jets. U.S. carriers are struggling to match capacity to near-zero demand while simultaneously meeting the schedule requirements of the U.S. government's $50 billion aid package to the industry.

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"I’d argue that’s not far enough, but it’s something," wrote Brett Snyder, who runs The Cranky Flier blog and separate Cranky Concierge service, on American's May schedule that cuts U.S. capacity by up to 80%.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects global passenger traffic to plummet 48% from 2019 to 2020 and $314 billion in revenue to disappear because of the COVID-19 crisis. The forecast sees domestic traffic in countries around the world to beginning to recover this summer, with international traffic coming back much slower.

“It is the biggest crisis we have ever had in front of us," IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac told reporters earlier in April.

Airlines have gone to all lengths to conserve cash amid the worst crisis in the industry's history. Some like Austrian Airlines have suspended flying entirely, while others have dramatically cut their networks. One example: Virgin Australia trimmed its entire domestic schedule to just one route — six weekly flights between Melbourne (MEL) and Sydney (SYD) -- prior to the Australian government's decision to fund a broader network of domestic flights.

Related: It may be years until passenger demand returns to 2019 levels for airlines

An American Airlines Airbus A319 airplane prepares to depart from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, December 22, 2016, ahead of the Christmas holiday. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
American Airlines is flying A319s on a greater percentage of flights under its reduced May schedule. (Image by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. carriers have made similarly drastic reductions. However, airlines taking some of the $25 billion in payroll support from the government must continue serving all of the destinations on their map with a minimal amount of service. The Department of Transportation is managing this air service requirement, including potentially granting waivers for service to some airports.

But while carriers must continue flying to all their cities small and large across the country, they can do so with whatever aircraft they like.

“Finding the cheapest aircraft to fly within the many constraints of operating a schedule becomes the new way to optimize the airline," wrote The Air Current managing director of analysis Courtney Miller on April 9. Smaller jets with lower overall costs are preferred to larger ones, particularly with revenues at many airlines down more than 90%.

American is flying more of its domestic schedule with A319s, 737-800s — the most predominant narrow-body jet in its fleet — and large regional jets like the Bombardier CRJ900 and Embraer E175 this May compared to last year, according to Cirium schedule data. A321s, wide-body aircraft and inefficient 50-seat regional jets like the Bombardier CRJ200 and Embraer ERJ-145 are flying a significantly smaller percentage of flights.

Related: American Airlines’ summer schedule rebounds in some hubs, but not all

Domestic flights. (Data via Cirium schedules)
Domestic flights. (Data via Cirium schedules)

While four planes — the Boeing 757 and 767s, E190s and McDonnell Douglas MD-80s — have disappeared because they were or will be retired, there is a clear shift to A319 and 737-800 flying from 2019 to 2020, Cirium data shows. This came even as American added 11 A321neos to its fleet last year.

"As demand remains at historic lows, it’s more important than ever for us to fly the right aircraft for the mission," American spokesperson Brian Metham told TPG. "That could mean flying a 737-800 today on a route that was operated with a wide-body aircraft in March."

The changes are likely to make little difference to the few people that are still flying. Those taking to the skies presumably are doing so because they need to get somewhere, even during a pandemic, and not because they want to. In other words, travelers are not booking flights based on the seating layout or inflight entertainment right now.

Related: US airlines could retire older aircraft, focus on newer models due to coronavirus downturn

Not every carrier is shifting to its smallest jet. Alaska Airlines will take a turn towards its Boeing roots by slashing flying on Airbus jets in favor of a flying more with its 737-900ERs. The Seattle-based carrier will operate nearly 40% of its schedule with the 737 type in May — a 17-point jump from a year ago — while suspending all A319 flying and reducing the percent of A320-operated flights by five points, Cirium shows.

Alaska configures its 737-900ERs with 178 seats — the second most of any aircraft in its fleet — while its A319s have as few as 119 seats.

"All sorts of variables go into play in making decisions regarding what aircraft to pull down – which ones are due for maintenance, operating cost differences, size and of course, which ones best match the network we are trying to fly," Alaska spokesperson Ray Lane told TPG. "All of our aircraft types are seeing reduced flying."

(Data via Cirium schedules)
(Data via Cirium schedules)

Then there is Delta Air Lines. Domestic flights operated with the Airbus A220 — its smallest, and newest, mainline narrow-body — are up three points to just over 4% in May compared to last year. But, as many following the Atlanta-based carrier know, it took delivery of 24 of the jets in 2019 that would have driven an increase in the type's share of flights even without the crisis.

Delta will also operate more flights with its 110-seat Boeing 717s in May, with the type accounting for over 10% of U.S. flights versus less than 9% a year ago. But, unsurprisingly, the McDonnell Douglas MD-88s and MD-90s that are due for early retirement are flying less.

Related: A smaller Delta would have to retire planes after coronavirus. What types could go?

(Data via Cirium schedules)
(Data via Cirium schedules)

United Airlines is expected to publish a revised May schedule that is down 90% year-over-year by April 19.

All of this says nothing for American, Delta and United's wide-body fleets. All three carriers are operating just a handful of flights and have little need to keep many of these jets, including the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, in the air. American will retire its 767s and may do the same with some of its Airbus A330s, while Delta will remove some of its 767s.

That said, some airlines are repurposing some of their long-haul jets for freighter service. The latest example being Delta using A350s to transport medical supplies between the U.S. and China and South Korea, according to Routes Online.

Featured image by AFP/Getty Images

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