Could Delta upgrade Europe flights to nicer jets because of China flight suspensions?

Feb 4, 2020

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Airlines are still in the early days of deciding what to do with the wide-body jets that have been idled amid fears of the spreading coronavirus outbreak in China.

Air China is cutting its U.S. route map to only two routes from Beijing, while American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hainan Airlines and United Airlines have suspended all flights between China and the U.S.

These wholesale moves have raised the question about what carriers will do their their idled jets that otherwise would be plying the skies of the North Pacific. The answer is complicated, as airlines need time to redeploy aircraft on other routes, move staff around, or even slot them into busy maintenance schedules.

Duane Pfennigwerth, an analyst at Wall Street firm Evercore, has an idea what Delta may do with some of the 12 wide-bodies it normally uses for flights to Beijing and Shanghai.

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

A Delta Airlines Airbus A350 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 Delta A350 at Beijing Capital airport. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)


Delta’s “China service is supported by some of its best product such as the [Airbus] A330-900,” he wrote in a report Tuesday. “Over time these premium aircraft will swap to Transatlantic and replace older aircraft in its fleet.”

The Atlanta-based carrier flew new Airbus A350-900s on two of its six routes to China — between Detroit and both Beijing Capital (PEK) and Shanghai Pudong (PVG) — and A330-900s on one route, between Seattle (SEA) and Shanghai, according to Cirium schedule data for January. Both planes have Delta’s latest products, including Delta One business class suites and its Premium Select premium economy cabin.

At the same time, Delta’s Boeing 767-300ERs, none of which have suites or premium economy seats, were common on flights to Amsterdam (AMS), Madrid (MAD), Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and Stuttgart (STR) the same month, Cirium shows.

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The Delta One cabin on the A330-900. (Photo country of Delta Air Lines)


Delta could temporarily park the older, less-efficient 767s with a less-desirable product, and swap in its new A350s and A330neos on flights to Europe for the duration of the China suspensions, suggests Pfennigwerth.

Of course any aircraft swaps will come with trade offs. Delta would need to ensure they have A350 and A330neo crews in place for the European routes before any swap could take place, in addition both jets have more seats than the 767 — at least 55 more on the A330-900 and at least 80 on the A350 — that would put downward pressure on revenues.

“In the short run (through the end of 1Q20)… we do not expect significant reallocation of this capacity due to crew bidding lead time constraints and a desire to build out a booking curve for new service,” wrote Pfennigwerth.

Delta told cabin crew in an internal newsletter on Jan. 31 that it would “reallocate” the aircraft previously used for service to China to other routes.

The carrier had four A330-900s and 13 A350-900s with average ages of less than two years at the end of September, Delta’s latest fleet plan shows. At the same time, it had 56 767-300ERs with an average age of 23.3 years.

American Airlines exclusively flies Boeing 787s to China, while United Airlines uses a mix of Boeing 777s, including the older -200ERs in its fleet, and 787s.

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

Featured image by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images.

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