A Look Back at Delta’s Shifting Fleet


The response to last week’s post about American’s shifting fleet mix was so overwhelmingly positive, that I’ve gone and looked at both Delta and United as well. First up? Heeeeeere’s Delta.

Delta Fleet Mix

What really stands out here versus American is that the historical reliance on smaller airplanes has returned to the mainline fleet at Delta. Nobody else has done that yet, but I’d expect others will follow. As always, the devil is in the details. So let’s get detailed, shall we? All of this data is for the end of each year listed EXCEPT for Delta in 2000. For whatever reason, the data I found there was for the end of June. Close enough. And yes, this includes Northwest even before the merger.

Aircraft With Fewer Than 120 Seats
Let’s start with the small end of the scale.

Delta Fleet Mix Under 120 Seats

Back in 2000, Delta was already retiring its 737-200s but those DC-9s were going strong. Over time, Northwest started to retire them and there were almost none of these left by 2010. (The bigger DC-9-50s lasted longer, but that comes later.) You’d have thought that this would have all shifted down to the regionals, and it did for awhile. But thanks to a sweetheart deal with Southwest, Delta picked up those 717s for a song and now have a large fleet replacing regional jets all over the country.

The Next Generation: Those 717s will fly for a long time, but we now know that the C-Series is going to carry the torch well into the future. Delta has ordered 75 of them with options for 50 more, but not all of those will fit into this size category. Some could be for larger CS300 aircraft.

Aircraft with 120 to 140 Seats
In the next category up, Delta has far fewer aircraft than American does, probably because it has so many of the smaller aircraft above.

Delta Fleet Mix 120-140 Seats

Once Delta retired its 737-300s, it really wasn’t looking for much in this size category. Sure, it had a few 737-700s, but those 10 airplanes were meant specifically for missions where the aircraft needed special performance to operate at an airport with a full load. Delta’s real growth was in the bigger 737-800.

Northwest, meanwhile, still had its DC-9-50s doing wonders on short haul routes with its A319s flying longer distances. Though the DC-9-50 finally retired only a couple years ago, the A319s show no sign of letting up. Delta continues to invest in the interiors. It’s interesting to see the focus Northwest had on these smaller aircraft (DC-9/A319) while Delta really just did not.

The Next Generation: This is likely to also be C-Series country. Delta will undoubtedly upgauge some of its orders to the CS300 and that will slot quite nicely here.

Aircraft with 140 to 160 Seats
You want to talk about cats and dogs? Delta has it all in this category.

Delta Fleet Mix 140 to 160 Seats

I mean, just look at this mess. Yes, the 727s are gone. We can ignore that. But Delta has a pre-merger fleet of 737-800s that formed the backbone of this sized-fleet for many years. The 737-800 tends to do longer haul flights within North America and serves that market well. Then there’s the A320, which was inherited from Northwest. Though capacity is similar, the A320 is expected to operate more on shorter to medium haul routes that need higher capacity than, say, a 717. You’d think that would be enough, but oh no. There’s the Douglas fleet.

Delta has been really bullish on Douglas aircraft lately because they have been so cheap to acquire. The MD-88s are on their way out, but still not for a few more years. The MD-90 fleet has only grown, however, since it’s very efficient. Delta scooped those up with ease since nobody wanted them, and it has now built quite the formidable fleet.

The Next Generation: It’s not clear what’s going to happen here. Presumably at some point Delta will decide to go with either the 737MAX or 320neo if it feels the need, but for now it has focused its aircraft orders on smaller and bigger aircraft while sticking with second-hand current generation aircraft to fill out this fleet.

Aircraft with 175 to 200 Seats
This is where things start to get a little fuzzier with Delta. Yes, the 767-200 may have been a bit bigger than this, but… close enough.

Delta Fleet Mix 175 to 200 Seats

The 767-200 was mostly gone from the scene by 2000 and it was the 757 that led the way forward. It still does, with Delta investing more money into updating what remains of that fleet. But as with other airlines, Delta is shedding some 757s and focusing it on its important longer haul, thinner missions. The 737-900 has started to replace it in some cases, with about half of the 120 on order having been delivered. And Delta just took delivery of its first of 82 A321s recently which will further help replace the 757. Why did Delta need both? That’s not very clear. I’m sure the airline just got a smoking deal on both orders.

The Next Generation: Delta hasn’t really focused on the next generation here just yet. It continues to rely on new current generation aircraft and will for many years to come. It has no neo or MAX aircraft on order, but at some point, I’m sure it will.

Aircraft with 200 to 240 Seats
I realize this is one weird grouping of aircraft that’s probably not very indicative of how these are being used.

Delta Fleet Mix 200 to 240 Seats

The old L-1011s are gone, but there are still plenty of other old aircraft in this category. The 757-300s serve a very specific purpose. They do mid-haul flights with a whole bunch of people on them. Think Florida and Hawai’i. Those aren’t going anywhere in the near future, I’d think, since they do their job well.

That means we have some A330-200s lying around from the Northwest days and a whole bunch of old 767-300s that soldier on. These can keep flying for awhile, but then what?

The Next Generation: Delta doesn’t seem particularly interested in being in this space. Sure it has the 18 787-8s that were originally ordered by Northwest long ago. But those keep getting deferred, and it’s fair to wonder if they’ll ever be delivered. The 767-300s, meanwhile, are at least partially going to be replaced by something bigger….

Aircraft with 240 to 260 Seats
This used to be Delta’s sweet spot, but no longer.

Delta Fleet Mix 240 to 260 Seats

Back in the day, this was the size to have. Northwest flew the heck out of its DC-10s and Delta had its L-1011s, but those went to the boneyard years ago. Now the only thing in this space is the 767-400. Delta has had 21 of these for a long time, and they do a nice job of serving larger European markets. But this fleet isn’t getting any bigger.

The Next Generation: There doesn’t appear to be any appetite for this space. While American has a 777-200 and A330-200 niche product here, Delta wants to go bigger. And so it shall.

Aircraft with 270 to 300 Seats
Wondering where the growth is when it comes to widebodies? Here it is.

Delta Fleet Mix 270 to 300 Seats

Back in 2000, Delta flew a few MD-11s but it was the 777-200s that was to be the flagship of the fleet. While we all know the MD-11s have been out of there for years, the 777-200s are still around and in greater quantities. But this is no longer the flagship, and the real future is with Airbus. Delta inherited those A330-300s from Northwest and opted to order 10 more on its own. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in this category.

The Next Generation: Delta has ordered 25 A330-900neos which will primarily replace the much smaller 767-300s on flights to Europe. I’d imagine we’ll see more of these ordered in time, if the airplane lives up to its promises.

Aircraft with More Than 300 Seats
I’ve saved the big guy for last. While I note “more than 300 seats,” this is really a WHOLE lot more than that.

Delta Fleet Mix 300 Seats and Up

You might not remember that Northwest operated 747-200s well into the 2000s. This doesn’t even include the freighter versions that kept flying even longer. But for years, the 747-400 was Northwest’s Asian machine. Those four engines aren’t cheap to operate, and the airplane has fallen out of favor. These are going to be gone in the next couple of years.

The Next Generation: The A350-900 is the future, and Delta has 25 of those on order, but it will be a big downsizing from the 747. Delta seems to be much happier with an airplane smaller than the 747. All that being said, Delta loves a good deal. There are some A380s coming on the market soon, and I bet they’ll be cheap…. (Seriously though, I’d be shocked.)

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21 comments on “A Look Back at Delta’s Shifting Fleet

  1. The 777-200 fleet consists of two very different airplanes.The 777-200ER and the 777-200LR which is an ultra-long range aircraft (with far more range than any mission DL flies). These aircraft have by far and away the longest legs in the DL fleet .

  2. Gotta say, DL’s unending quest for a deal has given them one heck of an odd fleet mix. Then again with mergers it seems all the legacies have mixed A & B metal that does essentially the same thing. Can’t believe that not all that long ago NW had one heck of a 747 fleet. Today I’m lucky to see one sitting on the tarmac at DTW or ATL. And now that the DC-9 is gone I kinda miss it. Early 2000’s flew on one that had a build date of 1969. That’s amazing.

      1. I toured the old NW maintenance facility at MSP back in the early 90’s when I was in senior high. Recall the guide telling us how the FAA says “replace this rivet regardless if it needs to or not.” He said if we maintained our automobiles like they do airplanes we’d only need to buy one car in a lifetime. I tend to agree.

    1. DL’s 747 was my first trip on a Jumbo jet from MSY to ATL in the early 70’s…I loved it but the best aircraft of all, at least my favorite was the L1011. I miss both the L10 and the 747s… Never had the chance to fly PA’s 747 Clipper service but one day I hope to attend the dinner party on board the PanAm first cabin.

    2. Think about this way: Delta has a huge MRO business, so their mixed fleet gives them a “wide body” of experience for their customers.

  3. It still doesn’t seem right to see DELTA written on the side of a 747 let alone a A380…..lol

  4. Nicely done.

    The part that is missing in the report and would be even harder to round up is the Delta Connection fleet. It is precisely because of Delta’s massive changes in its Delta Connection fleet including the reitrement of hundreds of 50 seats that it is in a position to take on smaller mainline aircraft. Delta’s cuts to CVG and MEM reduce the necessity to use as many small RJs to multiple hubs in the eastern US while making its remaining hubs more efficient.
    Other carriers might add mainline 100 seat aircraft but doing so will likely be tied to a dramatic restructuring of its hub network as well as its regional carrier fleets. United has made some changes to its network – mostly by reducing RJ/turboprop flying but is also removing hundreds of its own 50 seaters with upgrades to mainilne aircraft.

    Delta’s acquisition of used McDonnell Douglas aircraft is likely a one-time anomaly that was possible because of Boeing’s acquisition of McD-D, the end of McD-D’s product lines, and the orphan fleets that they created.

    The M90 and 717 are primarily at a disadvantage to A and B’s aircraft because of range. In a network as large as Delta’s which is heavily concentrated in the Eastern US, the 717 and M90 can be put to good use even as Delta has spent a fraction on those aircraft as it would for a comparable fleet of new aircraft. Given that Delta now has no significant numbers of used aircraft on order, it is ordering new aircraft just as other carriers are doing. Delta noted that it will replace more than 50% of its mainline fleet over the latter six years of this decade so they are indeed very actively involved in new aircraft purchases.

    The best part of Delta’s current fleet plan is that they are doing all possible to keep 757s as long as possible and are refurbishing interiors as part of the process; the new domestic 757 interiors are indistinguishable to most passengers from interiors found on new aircraft.

    Delta’s widebody longhaul fleet strategy also has the potential to significantly support the major restructuring of Delta’s Pacific operation as the 744s that have primarily supported the Narita hub are replaced with 350s that will fly deep into Asia from throughout the US.

    Fleet strategy is always dynamic but Delta’s fleet strategy appears to be well-suited to its network going into 10 years after the Northwest merger which added enormous depth to Delta on many levels and into the future as changing industry economics open new doors.

    thanks for your work on this article and the features you put on this site.

  5. Kinda ironic that some of Delta’s 717’s and 757’s are from TWA via AirTran/Southwest and American respectively.

  6. It’s sad seeing the 737-900 replace the 757. The 757 was a lot more comfortable in terms of galley and lav space and is able to take off from a shorter runway than a weakly powered 737-900.

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