On the heels of announcing the retirement of its MD-88 and MD-90 fleet on June 2, Delta has now announced that its 777s will leave the fleet by the end of the year. This is the kind of change that becomes a no-brainer when faced with the highly-depressed demand environment we’re now seeing. In fact, you might even consider this a godsend for Delta.
As of March 31, Delta’s widebody fleet makeup was as follows:
|# in Fleet
|# of Seats
|# On Order
This chart makes several things stand out. First, the 767s are starting to get old. I think it’s safe to say there will be significantly fewer of those in the fleet going forward. Some of the flying will be replaced by narrowbodies while the rest will have to be replaced by bigger airplanes… until some company produces the true replacement Delta wants.
Some of those A330-200/300s can move into that role, especialy since there are nearly 40 of them that are owned by the airline. They can provide cheap lift. The A330neos will become the Transatlantic airplane of choice along with some West Coast to near-Asia flying. The point of that airplane is that it’s optimized to fly shorter sectors. Then at the top end, we have the A350 and 777 fleets.
The 777 fleet is only 18 airplanes strong. The eight 777-200ER aircraft are already over 20 years old and are primarily scheduled out of Los Angeles and Atlanta primarily to Amsterdam, Paris/CDG, and Tokyo/Haneda. Those can very easily be served with A330-300/900neos and A350s. Now that there is such little demand, it shouldn’t be hard to find the airframes to handle that flying.
The ten 777-200LRs are tougher to replace. Those are newer — only averaging 11 years old — and they fly the longest flights in Delta’s fleet, those over 6,500 nautical miles. Right now, that means the airplane flies:
- Atlanta – Johannesburg (7,328nm)
- Atlanta – Shanghai/Pudong (6,655nm)
- Los Angeles – Sydney (6,506nm)
- New York/JFK – Mumbai (6,775nm)
There are also positioning flights between Atlanta and both JFK and Los Angeles, of course. But that’s really all these airplanes do… because no other airplane in Delta’s fleet can do it.
With Delta centering its future long-haul fleet on the A330neo and A350, you’d assume one of those has to be the replacement. The A350 is the obvious choice, but it can’t make these runs, at least not in the way Delta has them configured now. Fortunately, there is a solution to that conundrum that may be uniquely appealing due to the current crisis.
According to Delta, the A350-900 range is 6,322nm, so that’s not good enough. It could make LA to Sydney and Atlanta to Shanghai (not that this flight is likely returning anytime soon) marginal at best with weight restrictions on a good wind day, but that’s not a real solution.
That A350 range number is based on the 275 tonne maximum takeoff weight version that Delta ordered. There are other options. In the last couple of years, Airbus has rolled out a “High Gross Weight (HGW)” 280t version which, according to Airbus, can go 8,100nm.
Nobody ever believes what the manufacturer tells you — and rightfully so — so let’s just lop 10 percent off that and say the actual range is 7,290nm. This puts all the routes in range with the exception of Atlanta to Johannesburg. But there is a solution for that as well: the A350-900ULR which has a 9,700nm published range. Even with a 10 percent haircut, that easily can make Atlanta to Jo’burg.
If you’re doing some back-of-the-envelope math, you might think this sounds wrong. After all, Singapore Airlines flies one of its San Francisco to Singapore flights with a non-ULR A350-900. That is nearly the same exact distance as Atlanta to Jo’burg, so why can’t Delta do that? Just look at the configurations. Singapore only puts 253 passengers on its non-ULR A350s while Delta puts 306 onboard. That puts the route out of reach unless Delta wants to go with a significantly less dense configuration. It shouldn’t do that.
The difference between Delta’s A350-900s and the HGW version appears to be a paperwork issue. Aircraft manufacturers do this all the time. If you want a higher max weight, you can pay for it even if it’s just a matter of filing the papers. That may not be surprising, but this is: even the ULR isn’t as different as you might think. That airplane has no extra fuel tanks but rather just uses a different fuel system that allows for higher capacity in existing tanks. The differences are small enough that it can actually be converted back to non-ULR if anyone had a reason to do so.
What this means is that Delta could have an A350 long-haul subfleet and the differences would be almost nothing. The cabin would be identical to the existing fleet. This kind of commonality is easy for an airline like Delta to handle.
Here’s where things get even more interesting. Remember how Delta took on 10 more A350s from a LATAM order as part of the deal to take LATAM out of American’s arms? Well, that means Delta already had more airplanes on order than it wanted before this crisis hit. Considering the depressed demand environment that’s likely to stretch on for some time, Airbus has to be feeling pretty anxious about those orders making it through unscathed.
So, what if Delta went to Airbus last week — obviously something you do before you announce the retirement of the 777 so you can use it as leverage — and said, “Hey guys, we aren’t feeling great about all those airplanes on order, so we have an idea. What if you convert 10 of those to be A350-900ULRs at no extra charge? Then we won’t cancel or defer our orders. Even better, let us make some other modifications and we can just retire this 777 fleet outright. Wouldn’t you love to see it?”
This might not normally work, but in an environment like this one… everything is even more negotiable than usual.
If that happened, then it would open the door for Delta to make this announcement that it was ditching the 777 fleet entirely. It helps to simplify the airline’s operation, and it gives some shiny new toys with a whole lot of range to play with.
Of course, we don’t know what conversations were had with Airbus, but this all makes too much sense. Airbus keeps a big order active and a customer happy, further from Boeing’s arms. Delta gets to simplify its fleet, get more fuel-efficient, and find a use for all those A350s on order that it probably didn’t want any time soon. It all makes too much sense.