What are airlines doing with the jets idled by the China flight suspensions?

Feb 3, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Global airlines are increasingly isolating China as the coronavirus spreads with flight cancellations now stretching into April, idling dozens of wide-body jets around the world.

That means all those Airbus A350s, Boeing 787s and 777s and other planes due to fly airlines’ normally robust schedules to Beijing, Shanghai and other points have, in effect, received their furlough notice — expiry unknown. What are they to do now? The answer is tricky.

Airlines can park the jets at a base where they will be ready for a quick-return-to-service in the hopes the virus soon disappears, though the likelihood of this appears low as the coronavirus nears pandemic status. They can send the planes in for maintenance, but this requires fitting the aircraft into pre-planned maintenance schedules and weighing just how much work to do — the more work, the longer the jet is out of commission. Or they can use the planes to add capacity elsewhere, though this would likely involve swapping a larger jet onto an already scheduled flight rather than adding an entirely new flight or route.

Airlines being forced to grapple with this sudden and unexpected scheduling puzzle are still figuring out which strategy makes the most sense. Whatever they decide, it is a challenge for schedule planners.

In-depth:What does the coronavirus outbreak mean for travelers?

“There really is not much these aircraft can do,” Atmosphere Research travel industry analyst and president Henry Harteveldt told TPG. “This is going to cost the airlines a chunk of change.”

A United Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft waits to take off at Beijing airport on July 25, 2018. - Beijing hailed "positive steps" as major US airlines and Hong Kong's flag carrier moved to comply on July 25 with its demand to list Taiwan as part of China, sparking anger on the island. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)
A United Boeing 777 waits to take off at Beijing Capital airport. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

 

United Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier to China, normally dedicates 15 to 16 jets — or about 7% of its wide-body fleet — to its Beijing Capital (PEK), Chengdu (CTU) and Shanghai Pudong (PVG) flights. These include Boeing 777s, both -200s and -300ERs, and 787s, according to Cirium schedules.

The Star Alliance carrier is still evaluating what it will do with these aircraft, likely resorting to some combination of parking several, doing maintenance on others and using the remaining jets to add seats on flights elsewhere in its schedule.

That comes as United’s schedule of more than nine daily flights to mainland China will be suspended from Feb. 6 through March 28. The airline is also suspending two of its three daily flights to Hong Kong (HKG), keeping just one daily service from San Francisco (SFO).

Sign up for the free daily TPG newsletter for more airline news

A Delta Airbus A350 at ATL (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
A Delta Airbus A350. (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

 

Delta Air Lines dedicates roughly 10 jets to its six daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai. Aircraft include its newest models, the Airbus A330-900 and A350-900, as well as Boeing 767-300ERs and 777-200s, Cirium schedules show.

“We have an expansive and diverse network and will look to re-allocate our aircraft onto other routes,” the SkyTeam Alliance carrier said in an internal newsletter to flight attendants on Jan. 31 that was reviewed by TPG.

Delta spokeswoman Susannah Thurston confirmed this to TPG, adding that the airline was still evaluating where the aircraft would fly.

Delta suspended service to China on Sunday (Feb. 2) and plans, at least for now, to stay out until April 30. The carrier’s planned move to Beijing’s new Daxing (PKX) airport on March 28 is now “under review,” Delta said in the flight attendant newsletter.

An American Airlines Boeing 787 (front) and Delta Airlines Airbus A350 aircraft (background, obscured) wait to take off at Beijing airport on July 25, 2018. - Beijing hailed "positive steps" as major US airlines and Hong Kong's flag carrier moved to comply on July 25 with its demand to list Taiwan as part of China, sparking anger on the island. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)
An American Airlines Boeing 787 and Delta Air Lines Airbus A350 wait to take off at Beijing Capital airport. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

 

American Airlines operates just four daily flights, the least of any U.S. carrier, to Beijing and Shanghai using five or six aircraft. All of its flights are flown with Boeing 787 jets, according to Cirium.

The Oneworld alliance carrier plans to do some preventative maintenance on the wide-body jets, as well as deploy them elsewhere in its schedule during the suspension, American spokeswoman Nichelle Tait told TPG.

American suspended its flights to China on Friday, Jan. 31, with plans to resume them on March 27.

U.S. carriers are not the only ones debating what to do with idled jets that were due to fly to China. Lufthansa spokesman Tal Muscal told TPG the affected aircraft will either be brought in for maintenance or used as operational spares to support the rest of the airline’s schedule.

Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa and Swiss International Air Lines have all suspended service to mainland China through Feb. 29. Their China flights are on an array of aircraft, including A330s, Airbus A380s, Boeing 747-8s and 767s, Cirium schedules show.

BEIJING - SEPTEMBER 02: (CHINA OUT) Lufthansa's third Airbus A380 which bears the name Peking, arrives at Capital International Airport on September 2, 2010 in Beijing, China. The Lufthansa Airbus A380 is the first European airline to operate regular flights from Frankfurt to Beijing. Tokyo and Beijing are the first destinations to have scheduled routes with Johannesburg being the third destination. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)
A Lufthansa A380 lands at Beijing Capital airport. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)

 

Virgin Atlantic Airways, which only has a daily flight to Shanghai on a 787-9, plans to either park the jets or use them to support the rest of its operations, spokesman Andrew Scott told TPG.

Airlines’ plans remain in flux with the coronavirus still spreading both inside and outside of China’s borders. Reallocating jets on short notice is not an easy task, as both flight and maintenance schedules — not to mention crew resources — are typically set months ahead of time.

“It’s just not easy to bring in a wide-body to an already sold and set flight schedule,” one airline employee told TPG.

While plans for the idled jets are still in flux, one thing travelers should not expect is a desert airfield of filled with parked A350s or 787s. These aircraft are high-cost assets for airlines and, if not forced to ground them, they will find a way to use them.

Featured image by Xinhua/ via Getty Images.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.