Considering Delta’s Future Fleet as Retirements Mount


When it comes to future fleet composition, Delta has been busy trying to simplify. It has announced a variety of retirements and other changes that will truly re-make the airline’s fleet in the long run. There are still many question marks, but one thing is clear… there will be some significant upgauging to larger aircraft in every part of the Delta fleet.

Using publicly-available data, I compiled the fleet count on March 31 and June 30 of this year and compared it to the current plan for December 31, 2025. I broke this down into short-haul vs long-haul, so let’s start with the former.

Delta Short-Haul Fleet Breakdown by Aircraft Capacity

At the bottom, you see the 50-seat regional jet fleet that Delta has now announced will be gone by the end of 2023. There is no aircraft with that capacity that Delta can acquire, unless it wants to consider an ATR turboprop. Delta is more likely to simply not have aircraft that small any longer.

Here’s a map of where the 50-seaters are flying for Delta in November.

Delta 50-Seat RJ Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

These are almost entirely very small communities relying on the 50-seat jet to connect into hubs and to the world. Can Delta really serve all these cities with a 70-seater? It certainly can. It may be a 40 percent growth in seats, but costs go up much less than that. But will Delta care to serve these markets if it requires using a precious, larger airplane?

It’s the “precious” part that’s the problem. Let’s remember that Delta is currently capped at 102 70-seat regionals and 223 76-seat regionals by its pilot scope clause. There is no meaningful restriction on 50-seaters, so if the 50-seaters go away, Delta can’t grow its 70/76-seat fleet. The only option would be to bump some routes served by 76-seaters today into mainline aircraft, opening up space for smaller cities.

Delta has already done that and to great effect, but that has largely been thanks to the 91-strong fleet of 110-seat 717s. Those aircraft, it has recently been announced, will be gone by the end of 2025. Right now, the A220-100 is what has been tapped to replace that airplane, but there are only 45 on order. To replace both the 717s and handle bump-up from the 76-seaters, Delta will likely need more A220-100s.

The next step up is the first group that sees an increase in fleet size. That’s thanks to the A220-300 which seats 130. Delta had a small fleet of 10 737-700s but that was just for markets that needed the improved performance. They were never a key part of the fleet. No, the 130-seat category was previously mostly served by the 57-frame strong fleet of A319s. Those airplanes aren’t that old, and they should survive to the end of 2025. But eventually, this market will be owned by the A220-300. Delta has 50 on order plus options for another 50. I fully expect those to be exercised.

In the next category, it’s a bigger question mark. The MD-80/90 fleet fell into the 150-160 seat group, and that was retired in June. That leaves the 77 737-800s and 52 A320s in the fleet. That was an A320 fleet of 62 until last quarter, but ten of those were retired. Most of the A320s are old, pushing 30 years, and they can’t be long for this world. I’d imagine the 737-800 may be the only aircraft in this size range that is still there by the end of 2025. My assumption is that this fleet size will eventually rely on a future A220-500 being built — you listening Airbus? — though there is an outside chance that Delta could opt for a 737 MAX 8 if the price is cheap enough. It wouldn’t make much sense, but Delta loves a bargain.

In the 180-200 seat category, we have a whole lot of airplanes. Delta just finished receiving its last of 130 737-900ERs. I imagine those may very well end up replacing some of the A320/737-800 fleet as it gets retired and flights get upgauged. But then with ten seats more, we have 100 A321s with another 27 on order. And let’s not forget the 100 A321neos plus 100 options that Delta also holds. This doesn’t even include the 757s, which have to be disappearing some time. In short, this part of the fleet is completely stacked. Ultimately, it looks like dominoes where everything keeps moving up until it hits the biggest domestic fleet type at around 200 seats. That has to become the sweet spot.

(The larger narrowbodies, by the way, are the 16 757-300s which I imagine will continue to serve a niche role until they disappear. That’s probably the one potential example of downgauging.)

Delta Long-Haul Fleet Breakdown by Aircraft Capacity

That’s the short-haul fleet. Now let’s look long-haul.

There are currently a mere 18 757s in the fleet that are outfitted with Delta One and meant to fly over the oceans. Though the 757s haven’t had a retirement date set, I’m betting we won’t see these flying by the end of 2025. Instead, I imagine some of those A321neos will become LR or XLR aircraft and will end up not only replacing the 757 fleet, but also expanding it.

The next step up is dominated today by the 767-300ER. It also includes the small fleet of 11 A330-200s and the orphan, slightly larger, 21-count 767-400 fleet. Delta had 56 767-300ERs flying before the pandemic. It retired 7 of those in the second quarter. It now says that the rest will be gone by the end of 2025. If that’s the case, what will replace them?

The A321LR/XLR could certaintly step in on some routes, but otherwise, it’s upgauge time again. The next airplane up is the A330-900neo. Delta had 5 in the fleet at last check, but it will have another 32 in short order. That is a big jump in capacity, but it will have to pick up some of those 767-abandoned routes unless Delta decides to surprise and order a 787 or 20. I wouldn’t count on it. Delta still has 31 A330-300s which can continue to fly for while, but there are the 18 777s which will be gone this month as well.

Those 777s will be largely replaced by the larger A350-900. Delta had 13 in the fleet at the end of June, but it has 22 more on order. That’s a lot of big airplanes with a lot of range.

In the end, the Delta of 2025 is going to have bigger airplanes in just about every facet of its operation. In the more distant future, I’d expect to see something like this:

  • Regional jets: Embraer 170/175 and Bombardier CRJ-700/900
  • Small narrowbodies: Airbus A220-100/300/(eventual)500
  • Large narrowbodies: Airbus A321/neo/LR/XLR (for longer routes with higher demand), Boeing 737-900ER (for shorter routes with solid demand)
  • Mid-size widebodies: Airbus A330-900neo
  • Large widebodies: Airbus A350-900

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36 comments on “Considering Delta’s Future Fleet as Retirements Mount

    1. Why? Even if Delta decides to order the Max, I dont see it coming in the next couple years (they are already trying to defer deliveries from Airbus, would be hard to do that with an order from a competitor), and by 2022-2023 most (almost all) the population would go back to not even knowing (or caring) if the plane they are flying on is a max or not.

      1. It is a 60 year old airframe that has been Frankensteined instead of current engineering. I get it, new planes cost a lot of money to design. But you have to spend to stay in the game

        1. Yep. Plus the fuselage is pushing 65 since it was derived from the 707. A 737 is a horribly uncomfortable plane with outdated technology. I’d be happy if the MAX never flew again.

  1. Will the JFK-LAX transcons become A330-900neos? That seems huge compared to the current 767s. Hope they don’t down gauge to a narrowbody, it’s definitely a more pleasant flight on a widebody for flights of that distance.

    1. LD – It’s so far away, there’s no way to know. The 767s won’t be retired until 2025, but I’d imagine the A321s are most likely to take over.

  2. The DL A319’s (and A320s) are getting up there in age and likely will be the next fleet type to be phased out. These are birds built and delivered to NW in the late 1980s through to the early to mid 1990s. They have all been refurbished well inside, but their replacement aircraft is the A220.

    1. Shoeguy – The A320s, yes, but not the A319s. They were all delivered between 2000 and 2005 except for two frames that came in 1999. They still have life left in them.

    1. Let me beat him to the punchline: “Delta is great. Delta is good. Delta does what no one else could. Like Britannia of old on the seas, God ordained Delta to rule the skies”

  3. I wonder what this is going to mean for Delta service in my home market of South Bend.

    Delta only flys SkyWest operated CRJ-200s that even have a small maintenance base at our airport (SkyWest’s most eastern maintenance base at least when it opened). I guess we will see 70/76 seaters now, with the reduced frequency (Delta’s already abandoned the MSP non-stop).

  4. It will be interesting to see if DL take some of those MAX white tails. Seems like they’d get a great deal on those. Aside from that, I’d imagine more A220s.

    Calculus for the high capacity narrowbody aircraft may have changed with demand likely to be down for a while. I wonder if they will not pick up those A321NEO options and get some MAX8 instead or maybe A320NEOs.

  5. Thanks for taking on this topic, CF.
    you are absolutely right that Delta is going to upgauge the size of its aircraft; they were doing it before covid because larger aircraft in the same family are much more fuel efficient than smaller aircraft. The CRJ’s days were numbered because of life limits and Delta already shifted more flying to mainline from regional carriers than any other airline; there is a greater chance of flying on Delta mainline than of the other airlines that use regional jets: AA, AS or UA. That trend will continue.
    On the small narrowbody front, it is certain that the A220 will primarily fill that role. Given that the A220-300 will offer the best economics per seat of any current narrowbody, there is all the incentive for Delta to extensively use that aircraft. There is also abundant reason for Airbus to offer the A220-500 by the mid 2020s; Delta and Air France want it and the list will grow. The A220-500, if offered, will make the A320NEO no longer cost competitive but it will also do the same for the MAX. Boeing will have no choice but to move forward with an all-new narrowbody to address the entire 100 to 200 plus passenger segment. Airbus can accomplish what it needs to win in that segment by simply stretching the A220 while Boeing has to build an all-new family of aircraft. The 150-160 seat aircraft has been the backbone of airline operations for years but that size class will remain only if it is still the most economical aircraft.
    The A321 will become the backbone of Delta’s narrowbody operations. Both as a CEO and NEO, it is efficient and capable of doing most of what the 757 has been able to do. Despite a lot of enthusiasm about the longest range versions of the A321NEO, Delta has expressed concern about the economics of narrowbody longhaul ops because the cost of a 3rd pilot becomes more burdensome over a smaller number of passengers than on a widebody; further, many international routes have cargo demand which cannot be captured on an A321. Delta has a large 757 fleet with many specific aircraft young enough that Delta can gradually retire aircraft over much of the next decade.
    As for widebodies, the A330-300 already has per seat economics lower than either the 767-300ER or 400. The A330NEO will be even more economical but Delta will not order the A330-800 or the 787-8. It makes zero sense to use a smaller aircraft with the same aircraft costs when you can use a larger aircraft and carry more people at a lower unit cost. Delta obviously has to figure out how to redesign its network and schedules to minimize the transition to larger but lower CASM aircraft but that is what and network and revenue management of large airlines do.
    As for the 777s, the A330-900 has the capabilities to nearly do all the 777-200ER did and Delta will undoubtedly use its newer, more capable A330-900s for more flights from the interior US to Asia. The A350 has performance limitations compared to the 777LR but that may change in time and Delta may choose to eventually add the A350-1000 which has more performance than the -900 despite being larger, unlike in most aircraft families.
    We are not sure yet how the world has changed post-covid both with respect to the structure of the airline industry including in the US but also with respect to the percentage of business travelers. It is certain that Delta will be like other airlines in carrying a higher percentage of leisure passengers and also needing to lower its seat costs further and the surest fire way to do that is to use larger aircraft.
    Keep in mind that Delta is indicating the direction of its fleet up to five years in advance; it is taking accounting charges now that will reduce its tax bill in the future. From an operational standpoint, five years is a long time. Given that Delta is setting the direction for pilot staffing and also its desires for new aircraft, five years is not really that long.
    It is noteworthy that Southwest is also pushing its average aircraft size up by retiring older 737-700s and having a larger MAX 8 order book than for MAX 7s. Low cost and ultra low cost carriers depend on larger aircraft to get lower unit costs. Delta’s fleet decisions recognize their need to retain Delta’s position relative to the rest of the industry.
    And before anyone says anything about grounding parts of the current A220 fleet due to pilot issues, Delta will get pilot staffing lined up. Every airline is seeing enormous changes in its pilot staffing and it is clearly compounded by the number of fleet types Delta operates. No airline is flying 100% of its fleet right now; it is just a shame that the A220, like the 717 is being particularly hard hit by pilot shortages.

    1. Relax. Mr. Snyder’s blog today is simply a deeper dive into what was written here last week. That is: Except for the 737, Delta will become an all-Airbus airline. As far as A-220 parking is concerned, I give Delta credit for keeping the -300s flying while they sort out what promises to be a very expensive pilot training cascade if they do go through with the 1,721 layoffs.

      No, the big news today is Southwest. For the first time in its near-50 year history, they want pay cuts. Perhaps benefit reductions too. This will test the vaunted Southwest “Culture” to its core. It’s easy to be happy when things are going well. Not so much when things are sour. Already, their double-digit Profit Sharing has evaporated and now another 10% off the top (which is actually more than 10% when you factor in the lost 401(K) contribution). So now, the Southwest Employees are staring at at least a 20% hit. I wonder how much of their $17 million a day cash burn will be covered by the Employees? Perhaps Mr. Snyder will address this in a future blog post.

  6. How much of that 50 seat flying was even profitable?

    Maybe this type of flying can be sustained during good economic times as the rest of the network offsets the loss. However, during bad economic times, the elimination of these routes might actually improve their financials.

    1. Eric – In those smaller markets, the 50-seaters can be profitable. There isn’t usually low fare competition so with higher fares, those markets can work out.

      1. As any business traveler who has paid $1200 for a last minute ticket to XNA (Northwest Arkansas) to visit Wal-mart, those 50 seaters can be VERY profitable. It’s all about the competition and convenience.

        1. Is XNA still one of the most expensive airports in the country? 5 or 10 years ago it was, not sure if that’s changed… Also, not many alternative airports within reasonable driving distance. I’d bet that the RJ flights to/from XNA make a ton of profit.

          CVG is (was?) expensive, but at least there are 4 or 5 other airports within a ~2 hour drive of CVG for leisure pax.

    2. Eric
      your comment is spot on.
      Delta said years ago that its most profitable flying was generally nonstop point to point routes (just like what WN primarily does), then mainline connecting to mainline, with a connection involving a regional jet its least profitable type of flying.
      That was years ago and before an increase in the number of large RJs but it undoubtedly drove Delta’s decision to pull down CRJs before covid. Pre-covid Delta used a high percentage of its large RJs in point to point service such as from RDU as well as from hubs like LGA and BOS which have low percentages of connecting traffic.
      Many connecting routings just won’t work w/ lower percentages of high value business traffic and that is certain to be the case in the short-term and even in the medium and long-term as more business is done online.

      The US has allowed a competitive free market airline industry which does not economically provide any protection to small cities or those that are dependent on small aircraft connecting the majority of passengers to large hubs – and there are literally dozens of cities in the US that are like that. A very few number of small cities were economically protected because of the Essential Air Service program but the criteria to be included is pretty strict so that many cities won’t qualify. Even if they did, the government cannot commit to picking up the tab for air service that is not economical at the market level. When low fare carriers can charge low fares from large and even medium sized cities, many people will drive. The EAS program is getting smaller while nonstop options from small and medium sized cities are growing. That will affect the economics of service to small cities including on regional jets operated for AA, AS, DL and UA.

      Delta is making fleet decisions to reflect their belief about how airline networks and traffic demand will look five plus years down the road.
      The data about what flights, routes, connections and hubs worked in the past is all under review and very subject to change.

  7. I’ve always thought DL’s fleet was a bit of a mess, the latest bargain (although not as bad as UA’s nightmare) The narrow body move make sense, but the loss of the 50 passenger planes might limit DL (AA has the RJ-145 which is better then the CRJ200 in performance so will eat up the small/med feeder markets). Like the A220 and 737-800/-8Max and A321 idea. The 757 have to go they are old old old and as much lipstick DL slaps on those pigs, it’s not helping.

    The big issue is their long haul fleet. Except for the 767-400 (250 seats) everything is 290 -305 seats ( the A330-300/900 and A350-900 seat almost the same number of passengers, just range differences). That does mean some A321 will be the XLR to get rid of the 757 and fill in where the 210 seat 767 once flew, although a narrow body is not the same. I believe that DL was wrong to drop the 787 order in favor of the A330 – 900 and they will be way over capacitated for international flying.

    I do agree the Max will be in their future as will the 787-8 to replace the 767-400 and a size between the A321XLR and the A330 -900 which they will desperately need. The good news is DL’s fleet will be much simpler and that is long over due.

    1. The 757s in Delta’s fleet have the same interiors as their 737s and only a true AV geek would know the difference. Last week I flew a connecting flight through Atlanta (of course) and had 3 segments on a 737-900 and 1 on a 757-200. If I hadn’t looked at the seat maps when booking, I would not have noticed the change in aircraft type.

      Yes, the 757 will be retired when it is no longer cost effective to fly, but from a passenger’s perspective they are fine.

      1. You mean you don’t notice the difference boarding from the L2 door on a 757 vs. the L1 door on the 737?? What about the takeoff roll where the 757 shoots into the sky and the 737 feels like it’s going to runout of pavement before the nose wheel is up??? Or the hyper fast and rough landing of a 737?

        Sure, sitting in Y the passenger experience is similar…seat pitch, 6 across, etc. Same could be said of the A320 family and these aircraft. But the 757 is all around a more enjoyable aircraft to fly on than the 737.

      2. The 757 is a noticeably roomier airplane. Technically the seats are the same size on both aircraft, but with the 757 having a wider fuselage width overall, it feels much less claustrophobic.

  8. Is there a plan to create an A220-500? If they did, wouldn’t it compete with the A320? That seems like an incentive to not create the A220-500.

    1. Southbay – There has been talk of the -500 since It was going to be the CS500. It’s a better airplane than the A320. If you look at neo orders, the A321 is getting the lion’s share, often because of just how much better it is than the MAX at that end. But at the lower end, it’s not as clear cut. An A220-500 would be worth the leap for Airbus.

      1. Considering that I really like flying on the A220, this would be great news. It’s much more comfortable than the A320 and much more comfortable than any 737.

        Plus, I would like something that would finally force Boeing to ditch the 737 for a new design.

  9. It’ll be interesting to see the CRJ200 go away since so many of those routes are EAS or Skywest Pro Rate routes. All the SLC, northern msp and dtw routes. Those upper Midwest routes could easily swap to UAX eas service for Skywest. Wonder if DL would let some 200s still be flown in its colors solely for EAS or Pro Rate routes. Otherwise looks like Skywest would switch them to UAX routes on the -200.

  10. Comment about the airlines’ bringing onboard all those 737-MAXs. Have to train the pilots to be judicious with their “welcome onboard” announcements: “Welcome onboard folks, we’ll be flying on one of our newest 737-M.., uh, Beauties!”

    As to the EAS program and its questionable future, and that of the USPS, why don’t we come up with a new passenger/postal service program, flying all of the old EAS routes, plus many more spoke-routes from slimmed-down airlines, and the many, many short-haul, over-the-road, postal truck routes, “Essential Air Passenger and Postal Service Program (E-APPS).” Maybe save both EAS and USPS from destruction, and come up with more regional pilots’ jobs

  11. Amazing that only 12 years ago, pre merger Delta was an all Boeing airline (including the MD88s and 90s of course). That speaks volumes.

    1. Yes. 737MAX-8 vs A320neo are pretty evenly matched, but A220-500 kills both. A220-300 is already far more attractive than A319neo. Basically Airbus may be planning for the A220 family to replace the A320 family, leaving he A321neo and it’s ever longer range variants as the last member of it, effectively becoming a standalone model much like the 757.

  12. i nearly fell off my chair when i saw the news that Boeing got so freaking desperate they’re begging Delta to take in some 737 Screamliners.

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