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.
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