Delta to park A320s, many 737s for length of coronavirus downturn

Apr 26, 2020

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Delta Air Lines is taking drastic measures to weather the coronavirus pandemic downturn that CEO Ed Bastian says will take at least three years to recover from.

The Atlanta-based carrier will temporarily park all of its Airbus A320s and many of its Boeing 737-900ERs for the duration of the slowdown, Delta said in an internal load planner memo on April 24 viewed by TPG. The airline flew 62 A320s and 130 737-900ERs, of which 25 and 41 respectively were stored, at the end of March.

The news comes as Delta moves to ground some 650 jets amid the worst downturn the airline industry has ever seen. Shelter-at-home orders and fears of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are keeping all but people who have to travel out of the skies.

Get Coronavirus travel updates. Stay on top of industry impacts, flight cancellations, and more.

Airport security screening numbers from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have hovered around the 100,000 people a day mark since April 7. While many airline executives suspect this is the bottom of the market, it represents just 5% or fewer people flying than did the same time last year.

In response to this slowdown, Delta is slashing capacity by roughly 85% during the three months ending in June. Parking 440 mainline aircraft, the balance will come from the airline’s Delta Connection feeder fleet, is a corollary to these reductions.

Parking the A320s comes as little surprise. The jets are among the oldest in Delta’s fleet with an average age of 24.6 years — only its McDonnell Douglas MD-88s are older with an average age of 29 years. The airline’s oldest A320, registration N309US, was manufactured in August 1990 and originally delivered to Northwest Airlines.

Related: Delta still flying all of its Airbus A220s even as the coronavirus grounds more than half its fleet

Delta executives have indicated that the airline will prune its fleet after the coronavirus to adapt to what is widely expected to be a significantly smaller industry. The MD-88s and MD-90s are the only types they have confirmed will leave the fleet entirely by year-end, with some Boeing 757s and 767s joining them.

Wall Street analysts, however, have indicated that any aircraft that is older than 20 years will be a likely candidate for retirement. This raises questions about the future of the A320 at Delta.

“Any airplane that was thought to be retried in the next five years, probably you can consider it retired this year,” Bastian told Delta staff on April 22.

Delta’s move to park all of the A320s raises the question — and one with no answer yet — will they come back?

The airline will park 80 of its 737-900ERs, or more than 60% of the fleet. The jets are among Delta’s youngest with an average age of just 3.6 years in March.

Delta’s fleet plans remain fluid during the pandemic, and the jets it parks versus continues to fly could change.

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

A Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-900ER is seen at New York JFK. (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
A Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-900ER is seen at New York JFK. (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

Notably, Delta continues to fly both A320 family and 737 family jets, meaning that it can continue to schedule trips for pilots certified on either family.

Much remains up in the air about Delta’s — and other airlines’ — post-coronavirus fleets. Past downturns inform us that older, owned jets tend to go first but new aircraft deliveries are often delayed or slowed as well.

Like Delta, American Airlines has accelerated retirements of some of its oldest planes, including its 757s and 767s. The carrier also may have flown its last Embraer E190 flight though the type was due to disappear by year-end.

“We believe that it could be up to three years before we see a sustainable recovery,” Bastian told investors on April 22. A long, slow recovery that will mean significant changes to come at airlines.

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

Updated with Delta’s decision to continue to fly roughly 50 737-900ERs.

Featured image by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

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