2020 was quite a year for aircraft retirements. Driven mostly by a need to cut costs, pursue efficiency, and reduced travel demand, airlines moved to retire hundreds of aircraft. The retirements across the US range from narrowbodies to widebodies and consist of certain older aircraft and entire fleet types. Here’s a look at what planes major US airlines have retired.
For the purpose of this article, Simple Flying will focus on mainline aircraft. However, regional carriers have retired some planes, especially 50-seater jets that US carriers have outlined they don’t need in their capacity purchase agreements.
Alaska Airlines felt the crisis once locations in the United States began to shut down for travel. The carrier, sensing an opportunity, reacted by furthering its move back to an all-Boeing fleet.
Nearly right off the bat, Alaska Airlines decided to retire all ten of its Airbus A319s. These aircraft were small, inefficient, and some of the least-loved planes in the airline’s fleet from an operations standpoint. Additional Airbus A320 aircraft retirements followed this up. All in all, 30 Airbus A320s have exited the Seattle-based carrier’s fleet in 2020.
After merging with Virgin America, Alaska Airlines acquired its Airbus fleet, but it had an urge to go back to its all-Boeing roots. So, just before Christmas, the carrier announced an increase of its Boeing 737 MAX order book, which will enable the retirement of all Airbus A320s within three years, moving Alaska further to an all-Boeing mainline fleet.
The ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) took a cautious approach to its aircraft retirements, deciding only to take out a handful of Airbus A320 aircraft. These included primarily older jets that had expensive maintenance checks coming up or else were deemed to be not worth the cost of keeping them. The airline’s fleet still remains all-Airbus and at over 100 planes.
The 2020 American Airlines fleet looks markedly different from the 2019 American Airlines fleet. From the mainline fleet, American Airlines made some significant retirements, including:
- 15 Airbus A330-200s
- Nine Airbus A330-300s
- 34 Boeing 757-200s
- 17 Boeing 767-300ERs
- 20 Embraer E190s
While the Boeing jets were older, the Airbus and Embraer jets just added fleet inefficiency. American Airlines has previously not indicated a desire to hold on to 100-seater aircraft, preferring instead to fly the Airbus A319 and take on more of those smaller jets.
The Airbus A330s were a bit of an oddball in American’s fleet. They made up a tiny portion of the fleet, and American has plenty of Boeing 787s on the order that can do the same missions the Airbus A330s were scheduled on. Given the downturn in demand right now, which has led American to cut some long-haul destinations.
The fleet is now much more streamlined, with a further standardization of products, which is a goal the airline had even before the crisis hit. It has continued to retrofit its Boeing 737s and Airbus A321s to a denser configuration.
Delta Air Lines
Delta will be hitting over 200 aircraft retirements in 2020, which is a huge but not an unsurprising number. This includes both mainline and regional aircraft, including CRJ-200s. The list of mainline retirements includes the following this year:
- 10 Boeing 737-700s
- Eight Boeing 777-200ERs
- 10 Boeing 777-200LRs
- 26 McDonnell Douglas MD-90s
- 15 Boeing 767-300ERs
- 10 Airbus A320s
- 47 McDonnell Douglas MD-88s
- 26 Boeing 717-200s
The remainder of the Boeing 717s and 767-300ERs will exit the airline’s fleet by December 2025. The CRJ-200s will leave by December 2023.
Delta has been one of the most aggressive airlines when it comes to aircraft retirements in 2020. The carrier immediately sped up the drawdown of its aging MD fleet and then highlighted other older aircraft, including select Boeing 767s and Airbus A320s for retirement.
After isolating those aircraft, it then moved to examine its inefficient fleets, including the 777s and Boeing 737-700s.
One of the largest airlines in the United States, Southwest Airlines, operates an all-Boeing 737 fleet. Comprised mostly of Boeing 737-700s, the airline is looking ahead in 2021 to MAX operations.
Southwest Airlines had always had plans to replace most of its aging Boeing 737-700s. These aircraft, which can fly upwards of six or more segments per day, require more frequent maintenance, as the aircraft is worked harder than what other airlines do.
The airline has only pulled out a handful of Boeing 737-700s from its fleet, but it still has flexibility. With the 737 MAX coming into operation from 2021, the carrier is excited about modernizing its fleet, reducing its costs, and offering passengers a better experience, which in turn should help drive loyalty, which will mean more revenue for the airline.
2021 will see more retirements; however, it will not materially change the number of aircraft in the carrier’s fleet because Southwest plans to retire one 737-700 for each 737 MAX jet it takes. This will allow it to increase its overall seat capacity without increasing the number of planes in its fleet.
Spirit Airlines is in an interesting position with its fleet. The airline had previously parked all of its Airbus A319s, pending a decision on what it should do with the aircraft. While it has brought back a small number of these planes into commercial service, most remain parked.
The airline maintained that these planes were “flex capacity.” If needed, they could come back. And, it looks like some are needed, according to the airline. However, simultaneously, the carrier has the ability to go out and retire these jets if it determines that it is not financially worthwhile to hang on to these aircraft. They are the oldest planes in the ULCC’s fleet.
What about United Airlines?
While some smaller airlines, such as Hawaiian and JetBlue, have resisted widespread retirements, most carriers have gone ahead and retired entire fleets and been vocal about which planes it is getting rid of. United has not been the same.
While the airline has retired a handful of older aircraft, including some Airbus A320s and Boeing 757s, according to data from Planespotters.net, it is not ending the year with significantly fewer aircraft than it started with. Essentially, United is staying stagnant.
There are pros and cons to this approach. First, United has been one of the most aggressive airlines in terms of managing capacity in the United States and abroad. As other airlines pull down foreign schedules, United has actually announced new long-haul international and domestic routes. Some of these are the most hotly-anticipated new routes from US airlines in 2021.
To do this, the carrier is maintaining a robust fleet. While it has the flexibility to retire some aircraft heading forward, it has not deemed mass exits to be necessary for the carrier to survive. Thus far, the airline has done an excellent job managing costs and moving closer to a lower average daily cash burn.