A Look Back at American’s Shifting Fleet As It Plans to Retire Two More Types

In an internal memo last week, American explained that it was going to retire two more fleets in the next couple of years with both the Embraer 190 and A330-300s hitting the road. Both these moves make sense in the context of the airline’s future plans, but it made me think about the evolution of American’s fleet through two mergers and plenty of crises. I went back to the year 2000 to illustrate just how much things have changed.

Here’s a chart showing the fleet mix at the end of each of the shown years. This is for mainline only and it includes TWA, America West, and US Airways in years where those were separate entities. (While most data was procured from financial reports, the TWA fleet in 2000 was estimated from Airfleets.net data and may not be completely accurate.)

Keep in mind that my seat count here is somewhat generalized. American has changed configurations and seat counts multiple times on these aircraft so it’s more about general aircraft size than it is about exact counts. Besides, it’s going to change again on the widebodies when premium economy arrives later this year.

American Airlines Fleet Mix

A quick scan of this shows two pretty large trends. One is at the bottom end, where aircraft with less than 120 seats have virtually disappeared from the fleet and the other at the top end where American has been deploying more airplanes with more seats.

Aircraft With Fewer Than 120 Seats
Let’s start at the bottom end.

American Fleet Mix Under 120 Seats

Back in 2000, the 717s (TWA), DC-9-30s (US Airways), 737-200s (America West and US Airways), and Fokker 100s (American and US Airways) were everywhere. By 2005, those were completely and totally gone from the fleet. After 9/11 airlines cut their fleets dramatically, and a rise in fuel prices meant those older and smaller airplanes became less economical. Beyond that, these airlines began contracting for larger regional jets. This all but killed this size fleet with mainline operations at the time.

It was only later when US Airways agreed to take 20 Embraer 190s to re-enter the space that had been virtually abandoned to the regionals. But now, with only 20 in the fleet and big maintenance work due in 2019, American had to make a decision. In this case, it made sense to just retire the fleet rather than grow it and invest in it.

The Next Generation: American has nothing on order right now in this size, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. The C-Series and the new Embraer E2 aircraft will be good options here. I don’t expect we’ll see anything happen soon, however. I’ll bet American is holding that decision as a carrot to use during the next pilot negotiations.

Aircraft with 120 to 140 Seats
Moving up the chart, you can see the next size up has shrunk as well, but not nearly as much. That’s thanks only to a huge shift in the aircraft type being flown.

American Fleet Mix 120 to 140 Seats

This is a category which pre-merger American largely sat out for many years. (Sure there were some that fell into this category during the “More Room Throughout Coach” years, but that was a density issue.) It didn’t bring this size aircraft back again until it started taking A319s just a couple years ago. America West and US Airways, however, had plenty of 737-300s. While those are now all gone, the A319 fleet has grown to nearly match the original size. American likes these for longer, thinner routes but my guess is we’ll probably see some of the pre-merger US Airways aircraft disappear over time as they come off lease.

The Next Generation: There really isn’t one on the horizon right now, but my money is on either a larger C-Series or E2 aircraft if American feels it needs something here.

Aircraft with 140 to 160 Seats
The 140 to 160 seat size is a staple in the airline industry these days, and American has had a ton of different airplanes that have fit the bill over the years.

American Fleet Mix 140 to 160 Seats

Back in 2000, the MD-80 ruled the skies for both American and TWA. The 727s were nearly retired and larger 737s still weren’t in vogue yet. America West and more recently US Airways had A320s, but as you can see, after 2005 that fleet didn’t grow much. American was late to the game, but it started retiring MD-80s in force and you can see that here. In its place? The 737-800. That won’t change. We’ll continue to see more 737-800s while the MD-80s disappear entirely in the next couple of years.

What about those A320s? They don’t have much of a place at American anymore, and as they come off lease, the airline has been retiring them. I imagine those will go away completely in time since they just don’t fit in the fleet plan.

It’s important to note how many fewer aircraft are operating in this space compared to 2000. Part of this was simply TWA. That was a bunch of capacity that American ended up cutting because it failed to see that the acquisition was a bad strategy in the first place. But another part of it is the growth in A321s.

The Next Generation: The 737 MAX8 will carry the torch here with 100 on order.

Aircraft with 175 to 200 Seats
And now on to the A321s. In terms of manufacturer, this is the opposite story of the last one.

American Fleet Mix 175 to 200 Seats

If anyone needs an example of how Boeing has screwed up in this category, American provides it. Back in the day, the 757 was the king. Yes, the 767-200s had longer range but those were niche airplanes. It was the 757 that served as THE high capacity narrowbody. But then Boeing messed up. Instead of investing in a new version, it decided the 737-900 would be good enough. It wasn’t.

At the same time, the A321 proved to be a rock star. American has been rapidly retiring 757s since the US Airways merger, and it will be keeping a fleet only to serve the markets the A321 can’t. That’s primarily short Transatlantic routes, Phoenix to Hawai’i, and some Latin American flights.

The Next Generation: It’s all about the A321neo here. That airplane is going to be a category killer, even moreso than the A321 is today. American has 100 of these on order.

Aircraft with 200 to 240 Seats
Now let’s look at widebodies.

American Fleet Mix 200 to 240 Seats

These aircraft might be technically in the same competitive set, but they did different things. American used to use the A300 back in the day to pack in a bunch of people (maybe even more than the 240), but that’s because it was in a domestic-style configuration. It was useful for flying to the Caribbean and some shorter European stages, but it long ago outlived its usefulness, and that’s flying handled by narrowbodies now. It was the 767-300 that really hit the spot for smaller-gauge, long-haul flying.

As part of this fleet announcement, American said it will retire a further 8 767-300s so that only 17 are left flying in 2018. Those can’t be more than a couple more years away from being gone completely.

The Next Generation: There’s something of a split here. As new narrowbody aircraft come out with greater range than even the 757, American can use those to fly some routes that don’t need the capacity of a 767 today. But the true replacement is the 787-8 which is already on the property. That airplane can do everything the 767 can do and more.

Aircraft with 240 to 260 Seats
The next level up we’ll call the mid-size widebody.

American Fleet Mix 240 to 260 Seats

American’s 777-200s with 247 seats used to fall into this category but only because American had a very generous layout on this airplane that was not very dense. US Airways, however, had the A330-200 as a relatively recent member of the fleet to fill that gap.

While American has kept 13 of the 777s in a slightly denser 260 seat capacity, that’s primarily for the New York-London route. It’s really the A330-200 that is the workhorse of this category.

The Next Generation: American has 22 787-9s on order which are going to fit right into this category. The A330-200s still have plenty of life in them and won’t be going away anytime soon, but the 787s are the future.

Aircraft with 270 to 300 Seats
And now we keep getting bigger.

American Fleet Mix 270 to 300 Seats

The A330-300 is on death row, and you can see why. With 34 of the 777-200s being reconfigured to have 289 seats, the A330-300 becomes redundant. Further, the 9 A330-300s in the fleet have a Pratt & Whitney engine that’s not on any other aircraft American owns. You can see why this is gone.

The Next Generation: There are 22 A350-900s on order which will slot into this space.

Aircraft with More Than 300 Seats
Lastly we have the big boys. There’s no point in showing a chart here. American had nothing in this range at all since it (along with TWA and yes, America West) retired 747s years ago. But American’s previous management team came to realize that the 777-300 was a good fit for the airline, and that was as smart move. With 18 aircraft in the fleet now, this hits a sweet spot on many big long haul routes.

The Next Generation: Good question. There’s nothing on the books now, but an A350-900 or a 777X could come in the future. The 777-300s have a lot of life left in them, however, so I wouldn’t look for this to come soon.


One thing you might have noticed is the decrease in overall fleet size. Back in 2000, there were more than 1,400 airplanes flying between American, TWA, US Airways, and America West. Now there are less than 1,000. Most of this is because TWA and US Airways had a lot of bad capacity out there that wasn’t sustainable, but it’s important to note the fleet size has been steady for the last several years.

Though we’ll always see some fluctuation, that seems like a pretty good place for the fleet at this point in time. I’m hopeful that eventually American will bring back some smaller aircraft into its fleet in much greater quantities than that in which the Embraer 190 exists today.

If you enjoyed this look back, let me know. In the future I can try to do the same for Delta and United.

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91 Comments on "A Look Back at American’s Shifting Fleet As It Plans to Retire Two More Types"

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Andy
Guest

Great post – would love to see UA and DL analysis!

DAB
Guest

Hear Hear.

Scott O'Learywitz
Guest

Ditto on the above!

Bill from DC
Guest

Another ditto for DL and UA.

Doug
Guest

Agreed 100%

JeffNYC
Guest

Same. This was a really good post. Interesting to see the ups and downs in recent history of Airbus and Boeing in the various segments.

u600213
Guest

Shame about the e190. Much better passanger experience than crj200 700 900

JMR
Guest

What I find weirdest of American’s fleet management, is that it’s all over the place.

When you have A319s and A321s, why on earth would you use the B738 in between? I would either expect them switching all to Boeing or all to Airbus, but this seems to be a waste of money to me. At least the A350 vs 777/787 is a different story, but the 150-300 seat range airplanes of Airbus and Boeing are so similar, that I can’t understand why.

Thanks for the analysis, very interesting material!

Nick Barnard
Member

AFAIK, at the sizes each of the 737 and A329/320/321 fleets are large enough that the “single fleet economy of scale” is pretty miniscule

Nick Barnard
Member
A quote from the Seattle Times on April 4th: Brandon Pedersen, Alaska’s chief financial officer, joked about the added expense of operating more than one aircraft. “We are big believers in single fleet” airplane types, he said. ”So much so that we bought another single fleet.” Pedersen said that as the Virgin A320s come off lease, starting in 2020, Alaska could let them go if it chooses to, gradually reverting over time to a fleet weighted toward Boeing jets. But the conversation on the teleconference did not suggest that is a likely option. ——– Single type fleets are useful when… Read more »
JMR
Guest

Thank you for your reply, Nick! I guess that at those fleet sizes, you’re right. Still find it pretty odd ;)

noahkimmel
Member
some sample advantages to each plan below. Note that after a certain size, some of these “savings” in either side may not be worth the tradeoff. Single fleet savings – purchasing power of fleet, maintenance savings and reduced inventory, flexible crew scheduling and fewer reserves, potentially less ground handling equipment, training, IT complexity (think loading another seat map, programming another fleet type, new PBS rules, etc.) Multi fleet savings – optimized aircraft performance for stage length (depends on fuel costs), optimized seat counts and distribution of premium:coach (depends on config and could be done with subfleets), protection against unforseen fleet… Read more »
mikebeau
Member

Perhaps the 319 is optimized in its size category, 738 in its size and 321 in its size…or AA wants to keep leverage with both Boeing and Airbus (though their size gives them buying power with both regardless).

Rohler88
Member

Good read, thank you. Could you see American considering the 787-10 along with the 777x and A350-900?

cpagan2
Member

Pretty cool. Definately should do the same for Delta and United.

kevinaalexander
Member

Great read. I would certainly enjoy seeing overviews for DL and UA both…

A
Guest
One of the more interesting posts in recent memory. Would love to see DL since their acquisitions seem to have been focused on second hand planes. Also caught a bit of your editorial on the 757. That’s a heated discussion in the land of plane nerds. It’s interesting how airlines are replacing that particular aircraft…a model that every major US airline bought. I’m glad Boeing didn’t pull an MD-11 with the 757 but agree they lost the category as a result. My crystal ball says that the 757 had a time and place and Boeing made the right move economically… Read more »
Wes
Guest

Very much enjoyed this post. Please do a related DL and UA post at some point in the future!

Jason H
Guest

For the A320/A321s, is it a matter of just having fewer aircraft types overall, poor deals on the A320 leases, or are older build aircraft significantly worse (either from a fuel economy or a maintenance standpoint) than newer ones such that it makes no sense to keep both?

AAflyerORD
Guest

Very interesting. Agreed – I’d love to see a similar analysis on UA and DL. Thanks!

drybean
Member

It would be equally interesting to look at the regional fleets. What and when will replace all those aging 50 seat EMB 145s and CRJ 200s?

lou
Guest

The answer is – nothing. As Michael Boyd has been saying for probably 10 years now., read his blog as well. A lot of lift at small airports is disappearing.

sforsyth
Guest

Fabulous post! Yes, please do the same for Delta and United.

Many Thanks, Steve Forsyth

Gus
Member

Hi Cranky,

Thank you for this post, as it was very educational and informative.
It was fun to think back of all those planes I flew on over the past 15 years.

Tim
Guest

Enjoyed this. Looking forward to more.

eccjeep
Member

Great read.

David SF eastbay
Member

Must have taken a lot of time to gather and write all this, so give your self a pat on the back.

I’ve always like flying on 747/L10/757/MD80 type aircraft and it’s sad they aren’t filling the skies any longer.

SAN Greg
Guest

An airline blogger with something of substance. Nice job Brett.

Kilroy
Guest

I have been reading this blog for many years, and this is one of the best posts I have seen you put out. I’d love to see more analysis like this. Thanks.

Milton Silver
Guest

First-time commenter here, even though I have read your blog for a long time. You put together a great article with not only data, but also interpretation as needed. Nicely done!!!

Dave
Guest

Great post! Would love to see DL. Thanks!

Anonymous
Member
Excellent post Brett – many thanks! Didn’t AA do a fleet rationalization some years back in an effort to reduce the incredible costs associated with so many aircraft in the fleet? Visualize a senior captain retiring, and the multiple ‘move-up’s that causes to fill that seat, resulting in a new-hire walking in the door? With potentially 13 aircraft types in 2015 that will require a lot of non-productive flight training. Add the maintenance burden on top of that, and you can see enormous opportunities for more cost-cutting. Yes, a comparative look at UA and DL would be interesting. Thanks again!
Oliver
Guest

Great post.

Where did America West fly those 747s? And why did American retire theirs so early compared to, say, Northwest and United? Route structure mostly focused on Americas?

Blaine
Guest

Oliver, AA never operated the 747-400; only the -100, -200, and SP.

Oliver
Guest

Yes, I knew they didn’t have the 747-400 (though I didn’t know they had such an eclectic selection of older models)… but why did they take a different route (pun semi-non-intended) than the others?

Eric Morris
Guest

I’d love to see an analysis of WN! To be serious, how do they have any negotiating leverage with Boeing?

noahkimmel
Member
Easyjet switched from boeing to airbus in 2002. Can’t recall others which have as well. But again, aircraft acquisition is just one cost – think about all the other costs – less training, less IT work, less maintenance staff and training, less crew staff and training (fewer reserves), less spare parts inventory (think of all the engines that must sit around the country paid off and not “earning money flying”. Think about their ability to impact the design of the 737 – which Southwest is supposedly influential in. Think about ability to get preferential delivery schedule from Boeing and perhaps… Read more »
Andrew Bussa
Guest

Great post – Interested in United and Delta. Southwest would be interesting, but with maybe two graphs.

Ken@sirtripsalot
Member

I’m interested in seeing where Southwest goes as they continue to kick the standard airlines’ butts. Heck Southwest already owns all of the gates at Chicago’s Midway airport. That’s power. They also offer international flights within North America. Can the make the transatlantic jump? *fingers crossed*

Nick Barnard
Member

Well WN’s pilots sued them yesterday.. It’d be interesting what’d happen if they went on strike…

noahkimmel
Member
I think Southwest is slipping, badly and quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I fly WN a few times per year and I do like them. But their on-time performance was horrible two years ago and owning all the gates at one airport only matters if I want to fly there, and there is a price and schedule that works for me. Virgin and Jetblue seem to have a better experience, and Delta’s operation is great (along with their technology and IROP recovery). Southwest is now expensive in many of their established markets (and yes, I know bags fly free, but… Read more »
Captoza
Guest

No, WN doesn’t control all the gates at MDW.

The three gates in “C” Concourse are Common Use Gates and controlled by the City of Chicago Aviation Dept.

Gates A1 thru A3 are Common Use & International Gates and at least three or four other Gates are used by only Delta.

Neil S.
Guest

I have nothing constructive to add to the conversation but these are the kinds of posts I love. And agree that it’d be great to see the same for UA and DL.

Jeffrey Mann
Member

This article was great! I’d love to see the other US carriers broken down in this fashion.
I think it would be a daunting task, but an industry wide look at fleet types/sizes would be interesting, considering all the small niche carriers that have come and gone.
Thanks.
JM

S Pima
Guest

Great post!

American West flew the 747 out of Phoenix to Hawaii and also for a short time to Japan. I flew the Phoenix Honolulu route once. Plane was maybe half full at most.

Captoza
Guest

Oddly those same two AWA 747’s ended up at TWA in later years as extra capacity when my father flew for TWA.

Tim Dunn
Member
The greatest takeaway from your article is that mergers do wonders at destroying the best fleet plan and the notion that a single fleet type is necessary. AA’s now large fleet of Airbus and Boeing aircraft and even the A350 and 787 side by side exist because individuals companies make individual decisions which can be made to work in the real world – esp. since DL and UA now have very complex fleets. It is not likely that the retirement of the 333 is about much more than that AA knew it had X number more widebodies in its fleet… Read more »
DesertGhost
Guest

Very illuminating. Thanks.

Dave Starr
Member

Yes. Very interesting indeed. Maybe your best post ever. Please bring on DAL and UAL. Thanks, Brett.

Anthony
Member

Fascinating! Yes, let’s see them for DL & UA… especially DL..

Under the 200-240 pax category, you wrote “As new narrowbody aircraft come out with greater range than even the 757, American can use those to fly some routes that don’t need the capacity of a 767 today.” Is there anything like that even on the Airbus drawing board now? I assume we’re talking about Airbus, since Boeing — last I read — is still being coy about whether they’ll do a 757 replacement…

David SF eastbay
Member

It is interesting to see such a mix of aircraft different airlines have and what they need them for.

southbay flier
Guest

I wonder how screwed Boeing will be when the remaining 757s are retired and the airlines buy the A321 NEO to replace them? The 737-900 is so much weaker than the 757 in terms of range or short field ability.

Bill from DC
Guest

I understand the range difference but what do you mean by short field ability?

noahkimmel
Member
the -900 needs a lot of runway to take off. I believe it takes another 200-300 feet over the -800. There likely aren’t many airports where that is a problem, but loss of flexibility is not ideal. In certain times of year, airports considered “hot and high” (think summer in LAS, DEN, SLC, etc.) have reduced aircraft performance. This happens because the air pressure is lower, so more speed is needed to generate takeoff lift. To get more speed, it takes more runway. To counter this, you either need bigger engines, longer runways, or reduced weight. As weight is the… Read more »
southbay flier
Guest

IIRC, the 757 is able to take off using less runway than the 737-800 or 737-900 with a larger load to boot.

Bill from DC
Guest

Thanks Noah!

ralph
Guest

hp america west flew ex klm 747-200 from phx and las which were their hubs to hnl, then won rites to nagoya japan but it was too costly to operate two aircraft so they lasted less than a year.

ralph
Guest

my buddy from delta said delta is buying aircraft from all over the world. sas for md-80s for parts europe for 717s. shanghai airlines for the last batch of 757-200ers that were made and now as you see 777s for parts and possible exspansion of that fleet.

noahkimmel
Member

Delta is extremely good at buying parts, planes, and fleets at good prices from anywhere in the world they can find them. Their strategy is to operate both new and old airplanes (though many refurbished interiors that look new), blending capital cost (aircraft purchase and leases) with operating cost (fuel and crew). This lets them vary capacity quickly, worry less about utilization, and try to lower acquisition costs.

Bill from DC
Guest

I think DL bought every last L1011 in the early to large 90s from Eastern, TWA and others. As a Platinum medallion at that time, I couldn’t have been happier. 36 seat first class sections… God I loved those planes!

Joe
Guest

I really don’t get it. What counts is revenue, and there are many other drivers other than the number of sewts. Witness JetBlue, whose revenue went up when they reduced the number of seats on some of their 321s from 180 to 159.

Tim Dunn
Member
Joe, your point is valid. JetBlue basically started taking new 321s and converted the additional space to add a transcon premium product, something they did not have. They recognized what the network carriers have known for years – that complexity does create revenue opportunity. It is no different from JBLU’s decision to add international routes earlier than Southwest that kept to a 48 state domestic operation for much longer. When the cost of creating complexity is less than the additional revenue created, it makes sense to add that complexity. AAL and none of the US network carriers are adding products… Read more »
okeeffe
Member

Thanks, Cranky, and yes, please do the same for DAL and UAL!

G

bkaplan
Member

Really great trip through history. Thanks for doing the research.

Patrick
Guest

Great post, thanks! And I’d love to see the same analysis for Delta & United. The final comments about how fleet size has shrunk over all left me wishing for a version of the first total-fleet graphic, only with actual counts rather than percentages for the vertical measure.

Dr. Robert L Fredericks
Member
Dr. Robert L Fredericks

Great report and very interesting. I always wondered what happened to many of these aircraft and it reveals the logic being used in phasing out and bringing on line new aircraft. I would love to see the same type of report on Delta and United. Delta will be interesting with their business plan of fly them til they drop. And I think the confusion and bad management at United will also be revealed.

Great work, and keep it up.

Andrew
Guest

Thanks for this very interesting piece. Would love to see this for Delta too.

Captoza
Guest

At the time TWA was acquired by American, TWA had the following approximate aircraft types and numbers in their fleet;

DC-9’s (unknown number and were being retired at the time)
717 – 30 Total with 20 on order (returned to Boeing by AMR). Most were sold to AirTran
747 – 2 Total (Retired)
757 – 27 Total (returned to lessors or sold). Most are at Delta
767 – 12 were 200ER’s and 10 were 300ER’s (returned to lessors or sold)
A318 – 50 Orders cancelled (A318 Order replaced A330 Order)
MD80 – 8 were 81’s, 38 were 82’s & 65 were 83’s (majority retained by AMR)

Kevin Phillips
Guest

I would like to see further analysis.

Brad
Guest

Very interesting read, thanks for that. Glad I flew on an A333 once anyway before they bite the dust.

P B
Guest
Your thought that the TWA acquisition was a bad one is inaccurate. AMR took out a direct competitor and gained a qualified workforce at a time when crews were scarce, as well as picking up its market share. Through the prepackaged bankruptcy it shed unions, old equipment, and debt. Furthermore, with the elimination of TWA ticket counters, and by taking fuel costs off spot pricing and putting TWA on the American fuel contracts it paid for the acquisition within one year. Initially, I thought the acquisition made Lille sense but, in fact, it was a brilliant move. Had American tried… Read more »
Captoza
Guest
AMR didn’t need to go toe to toe with TWA, they were doing just fine. AMR’s purchase of TWA was a disaster for them from the start and their management lied to the US Congress regarding the purchase agreement. The purchase agreement was a forced bankruptcy of TWA by AMR. In the end TWA’s Bill Compton sold his fellow TWA employees out. I watched the hearings on TV. After the TWA buyout, AMR’s overall on-time hub was not ORD, DFW or MIA, it was STL. 9/11 killed AMR’s real plans for the TWA buyout. Although TWA did have other offers,… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Well done article, very informative. Thanks for compiling all that data into useful information. Yes, to see this for Delta and United would be interesting to compare with AA..

Bradders
Guest

Best post in a while, and I say that enjoy the usual! Very interesting. Please do for the others, esp DL!

World Traveller
Guest

I really enjoyed this post. How about doing the same kind of post for British Airways?

They’ve grown over the years through numerous acquisitions then scaled back by stopping to fly from the regions to focus on point to point flying to/from Heathrow.

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