American Faces a Widebody Shortage, Cuts Summer Capacity

787, American, Boeing

By all accounts, next summer should be a barnburner of a travel season over the Atlantic. Airlines are making plans to ramp up and some, like United, are putting forward some pretty unique leisure-focused destinations which they think might catch fire. But then there’s American.

American, to be fair, is also feeling bullish about next summer. Brian Znotins, VP of Network and Schedule Planning at the airline told me that “we think summer 2022 will be highest demand summer to Europe ever.” If that’s the case, then why oh why is American going to only fly 80 percent of its 2019 capacity? Well for that answer, we have to look toward Boeing and the FAA, along with some past decisions American itself has made.

Let’s start with the decisions that American made. Below you’ll find American’s long-haul fleet pre- and post-pandemic.

American Airlines Widebody + 757 Fleet

Data via Cirium

This requires some explanation. First, American had already announced plans to retired its A330-300, 767-300ER, and 757-200 fleets. The A330-200s would stick around but everything else would go away as more 787s came into the fleet. But then the pandemic hit and American just shut them all down and sent them to the desert, never to return again.

On the widebody front, that removed 41 airplanes just like that, no small number. The 767s were clearly on their last legs without major investment, so that couldn’t really be extended much longer. Here’s a look at the interior just before retirement.

INTERIOR OF T-29 AIRPLANE - U.S. National Archives & DVIDS Public Domain  Search

And of course, the 757s need to be looked at differently. Those didn’t all fly longer haul routes, but they did fly some thanks to their ability to fly to Europe and into Latin America on routes that today at American, only a widebody can fly. So, is it fair to include all of those in the fleet comparison? No, but some of those either had to be replaced by widebodies or routes had to be abandoned.

But let’s forget about the 757s. Even without them, American saw its widebody fleet drop from 150 to only 113 today. By this point, however, American had hoped to have 126 widebodies flying. Boeing just couldn’t deliver.

Boeing has had a variety of certification delays as the FAA scrutinizes nearly everything in the company. Brian said that today the issue is something to do with door certification. It apparently has nothing to do with safety on the existing fleet or there would be a grounding. This just sounds like Boeing is being put through the paces after the MAX debacle.

The end result is that American had expected to take delivery of 14 787s this year with the last arriving in August. So far, it has taken delivery of one. Boeing has continued to roll the delivery dates month by month as it works through all its problems. American had already cut flying this winter through Q1 of next year as it became less and less convinced that it would be able to get those airplanes. Now it has mostly given up on getting them by next summer, so it has made cuts.

The plan announced last week has several components.

Europe Focuses on the Big Leisure Destinations

In Europe, American will put all of its eggs in the primary European leisure destination basket. That means you’ll see a lot of Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Lisbon, Paris, Rome, and Venice along with the usual hub-to-hub routes into Dublin, London, and Madrid. There are a few more important markets that remain as well, like Frankfurt.

This is bad news for all the other smaller routes which won’t operate. Many of the seasonal leisure destinations that flew previously will not return this year. That includes Budapest, Dubrovnik, and Prague. (Bologna was already canceled from the class of 2019, as was Manchester.) Further, both Shannon and Edinburgh will not fly. Those, I should note, would have been great on a 757 and may not return until the A321XLR joins the fleet.

The Pacific Gets Gutted

American had already said it would pull back on its LA-Pacific gateway, bringing it back down to focus on hub markets like Tokyo and Sydney. But that’s not enough.

China takes a big hit since it is still expected to remain effectively closed for a long time. The government continues to restrict flying from the US to only 2x weekly per airline, so American has extended that plan through summer. Even if there’s a change in policy, demand is still likely to be weak for a long, long time. (That’s my thought, at least.)

Then there’s the sad tale of Hong Kong which I hate to say should now effectively be considered China. Demand has plummeted in recent years, even before the pandemic, and American will stop flying there. It had already stopped flying from LA, but now DFW will disappear. Brian said that a variety of factors impacted this, including that Hong Kong is one of the first to impose restrictions and last to lift them. That combined with much of the commercial business moving to Shanghai means that Brian is “not as bullish.” I think that’s an understatement as we watch Hong Kong continue to fall from the global stage as China further sinks its claws into the city.

Over in India, there was growth when JFK – Delhi launched. I’m told that’s doing very well (financially, if not operationally). But the long-awaited Seattle-Bangalore flight will be delayed again until the start of the winter seasons at the end of October. This is a business route and it takes up a lot of aircraft time, so it’s a pretty obvious place to cut. We’ll see if that ever actually starts, especially now that United will fly from San Francisco.

Down in Sydney, American is pulling back frequency there. This may seem strange since it’s a hub for its joint venture partner Qantas, but it’s important to know your place. Qantas attracts the local Australian traveler, and those people just want to get the heck out of there as soon as possible. Demand is strong. But for the US-based travelers that are more likely to fill American’s aircraft, they remain wary about whether Australia will actually open up. A frequency reduction here makes sense, especially since Qantas still has plenty of service.

Doha Joins the Network

American tried to make this announcement not all doom and gloom with the somewhat surprising decision to fly from JFK to Doha, the home of partner Qatar Airways.

My initial reaction was that this was a strange add, especially since Qatar already plans to fly the route 18x weekly next summer. So, why?

Brian says that some of the best-performing flights are those that connect to their partner hubs. That’s not a surprise considering what we’ve seen elsewhere in the network. But American feels bullish on the Middle East, Africa, and yes, India. So, putting an airplane in Doha is a great way to connect into those markets.

Other American hubs are pretty well-served by Qatar, so this is an opportunity for American to kill three birds with one stone, as I see it.

  • It can show DOJ its commitment to the New York market and prove that the JetBlue Northeast Alliance is good for consumers.
  • It can prove to New Yorkers that it is serious about flying to the city, and can give them more options over the Atlantic than just flying BA over London.
  • It can help American boost its presence in India by now having multiple connecting options to many cities in India while maintaining the Delhi nonstop.

I still question if this is the next best market the airline can serve with its scarce widebody resources, but the fact that it’s happening suggests this Qatar partnership is growing more and more. Could a joint venture be on the horizon? Naturally Brian wouldn’t say, but that would be a fascinating development and a FAR cry from the not-so-long ago days when American was fighting against all those big, bad subsidized Middle East airlines. I like this plan better.

In the end, this schedule will still stretch American to the limit. Widebodies will be pulled out of the short-haul market almost entirely unless there’s enough downtime on an international trip to throw in a quick turn. Even with that, there is some flying that actually assumes there will be at least some deliveries by next summer, but Brian said they can move things around if those don’t materialize and maintain this plan.

This lack of capacity isn’t great news for consumers. Not only do they have fewer options, but if demand shapes up as expected, I’d be expecting high prices as they sell of scarce seats. Who would have thought a year ago airlines would be saying they needed more widebodies asap?

48 comments on “American Faces a Widebody Shortage, Cuts Summer Capacity

  1. This (lack of?) planning seems to inevitably lead to much greater cooperation across the One World alliance partners and would hazard a guess that leads to higher international fares in the future.

    Notwithstanding the COVID effects, vaccine mandates etc Is International travel on a secular downturn?

    1. International travel is and always has been cyclic due to things like the US and other countries’ economies, fuel prices, how other airlines are doing, seasonailty, and so on, and now plus COVID restrictions coming and going. Some of those can be predicted, some can’t.

      In the end it’s not about filling seats, it’s about filling them profitably. This should mean higher fares for customers, but I don’t think it’s a really bad thing for American. (Didn’t Delta intentionally downsize its fleet and operations a few years ago anyway?)

    1. Service to VIE always seems sporadic. Even with a big xatl hub and Austrian being a Star Alliance partner, United doesn’t even fly there from IAD and hasn’t for as long as I can remember. Austrian has a daily but that’s it.

      United flies their own metal to BRU, ZRH, FRA and MUC which are also Star hubs in Europe. UA also flies to many smaller cities in Europe such as GVA but still no VIE.

      I’m guessing there just isn’t enough demand so it makes more sense to let Austrian cover it once daily and fly someplace else without nonstop competition like Geneva, Prague, Berlin, etc.

      1. But why would you want to transport ‘Vienna’ [sic] sausages INTO Austria? ;-)

        … Especially when (at least in the US) they are usually among the cheapest types of “meat” (or “meat-flavored processed food product”, or whatever the official FDA term is) that you can buy?

        I kid, and I appreciate the joke.

  2. Is the cost of bring back 757 and 767 from the dessert to do some flying so cost prohibitive?
    Obviously, it is not as easy as pulling out an old bike and dust it off. But, if there is market demand, is it worth to at least crunch the number and see if things makes sense?

    1. The bigger issue here is pilots. By retiring the 757/767 fleets, they eliminated a pilot group. Those pilots have now already been trained on a different fleet. To re-train those pilots (and ensuing downline impact to other pilot fleet categories) would create a chaotic staffing situation

    2. Pilot groups for the 757/767 have been retired. Most of the 767s that did not end up with a cargo operator are probably soda cans by now. A330 pilots also gone.

      1. not gone/retired, retrained on another fleet. Although I’m sure some pilots that were near the retirement age took the retirement when the fleet was scrapped.

  3. I suppose the legacy airlines have to be optimistic about TATL demand, because their fortunes are tied to it. The reality is we have such uncertain border restriction policies that demand will be suppressed for a long time. LHR has said passenger numbers are down 60% vs 2019 even as countries were opening up a lot more. And now with Omicron, Q1 demand is smoked. All the legacies are basically hoping that we will get a spike in bookings once travel restrictions go away.

    Do they realistically think Omicron will be the last major variant to shut down international travel? That seems to be overly optimistic.

    At this point, short duration TATL travel is not coming back as long as we have these 1 day or 3 day testing requirements. The bulk of demand is VFR. After that initial wave of VFR demand, how many people are looking to take week long leisure trips to Europe when domestic trips have no testing/quarantine requirements and places like Mexico have no entry requirement or travel restrictions?

    Take a look at kayak https://www.kayak.com/flight-trends
    searches for London, Paris and Rome are way down compared to a month ago

  4. The Doha thing is interesting. I would have thought that American would schedule their flights to arrive into Doha in prime time to make ample connections at Doha, as the majority of people use Doha as a stopping off point, not as a final destination. So when American recently announced their flight times at Doha, I decided to take a look to see what their flights could easily connect to. Sadly – not much. As of now, AA’s flight arrives Doha at 8PM or so and leaves Doha at 1am. I then looked at Qatar’s schedule and assumed a 1 hour connection minimum at Doha. Unfortunately, there really are few flights at Doha at that time of night. Unless Qatar changes their schedule drastically, or unless AA arrives DOH earlier, there are very few connections. That 8PM arrival really only connects well to a Delhi flight (which is superfluous, given AA’s own flight) And a Bangalore flight. There arent a lot of other departures until around midnight, and most of those go to Europe. For the 1AM departure, there are some flights that come into Doha to connect, but again, a lot of them are from Europe, not the india/ INdia ocean/ middle east originators. Unless QR is planning a massive restructure of their hub, these AA flight times dont look great, as of now.

    1. Wow that’s crazy. I would have thought the whole point of service to DOH was to make connections in DOH.

      1. It has to be. the majority of the people who are on those flights to Doha are just connecting. So, either QR’s times change in the summer schedule or AA will not be able to flow their traffic anywhere and the flight is empty. Or just leave JFK a few hours earlier to arrive around 6pm Doha time – that would be perfect for connections.

        1. Yeah, it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard but as you discovered, that’s not always the case I guess.

    2. There are plenty of departure around midnight from DOH to KSA, Iran, Pakistan, Eastern Africa and the Gulf. They can’t depart later from JFK because CBP closes early at T8. The 1AM departure from DOH has good of inbound feed from the same regions too.

      1. My point is they should leave earlier from JFK to hit the bank leaving from Doha around 7/8PM, which has much more flow to India, Indian Ocean, KSA, Middle East than the midnight bank at Doha. Right now the flight leaves JFK at 1AM and arrives DOH At 8PM. Why not leave JFK at 11PM or 10:30PM and get to DOH at 5/6PM? Much better connectivity, and no 4 hour wait from an 8PM arrival at Doha to a smallish bank that has no India departures?

        1. Because QR is operating that rotation. It wouldn’t be smart to have wingtip departures from JFK to DOH.

          1. QR and AA are competitors on the route. they are not sharing revenue. Unless there’s any connectivity, which there’s not, AA’s flight will be empty.

  5. “The 767s were clearly on their last legs…Here’s a look at the interior just before retirement.”
    I for one will miss the 767s – as a coach pax, you just can’t beat the 2-3-2 set-up on long flights. Yeah, yeah the overheads are not big enough, tired interiors, etc – but give me 2 wide Aisles and almost all window/aisle seats anyway.

      1. Wonderful plane in coach. I flew on a Untied one from SFO-CDG in the mid 2000s. I’ll miss them and the 757s when they retire for good. Luckily Delta keeps flying a bunch of them which is good for me as a MSP flier.

    1. 2-3-2 is nice, but the A330’s 2-4-2 was basically just as good, and (at least when I last flew them in 2016), American still had only main screen entertainment on the 767s, no PTVs.

  6. Are the A330-200s still in storage or have they been sold off? If there are enough pilots to fly them, reactivating them if they’re available would seem like a decent short-term cover.

    1. CraigTPA – I took a look at the ch-aviation database and it appears these airplanes are all stored in Roswell right now. They all look to still be owned by American. I imagine the issue is two-fold. The biggest problem is likely the pilot training needs, but it also isn’t the quickest thing to pull these out of long term storage and get them ready to fly again.

      1. But wouldn’t the incremental cost of recurrent pilot and F/A training plus RTS work on the 9 frames be less than the potential revenue generated by actually flying the full schedule they want to fly? It’s not like US airlines can dry or wet lease like the European carriers do/did when short on frames.

        1. phllax – I would assume not or American would have considered doing it.
          They have far better information than we do. Also, remember, summer demand is all a guess at this point.

  7. AA might as well forget about HKG at this point considering what has been going on in China lately with the CCP & their plan move into Taiwan.

    1. AA will probably never fly to HKG again. The market has changed. Look for TPE as the new destination once Asia opens up again to corporate traffic.

    2. There is no move into Taiwan. PLAAF carrying out more realistic training exercises close to but well outside of Taiwan air space is causing more hysteria than it deserves.

      Taiwan has been a beneficiary of exodus out of Hong Kong, but Singapore has been the biggest winner. Until US gets COVID under control, demand to APAC countries will be low regardless of any other factors.

      HKG will be fine long term. Vast majority of travel into Hong Kong will not care about who the controlling government is. Hong Kong is a resilient city. CX is a strong OW member. AA doesn’t need to fly to HKG as long as CX is still part of OW.

  8. So can we expect to see (even) more announcements from BA/Aer Lingus/Iberia/Finnair for TATL travel? I know there’s a brand recognition thing and US pax gravitate towards US-operated flights, but I would have thought the Aer Lingus A321s would plug the Edinburgh and Shannon gaps quite nicely, for example. (I appreciate Aer Lingus have (instead)chosen to focus on Manchester (UK) instead to take up gap left by the failure of various leisure/charter airlines.)

    1. Simon – BA just announced Portland yesterday, but I don’t know that BA will do much more than what it already has. It is much closer to 2019 levels than AA, that’s for sure.

  9. 757/767s were at the end of their life and the writing was probably on the wall for them the second COVID hit, but the A330 retirements were very short-sighted and premature IMHO. They (especially the A330-200s) had a good amount of life left in them and the fleet was large enough to scale. I’m assuming they were already paid for by US and easily could’ve held AA over in the event 787 deliveries got delayed, which is something airlines should be planning for given all of Boeing’s quality control screwups in the past decade.

    1. It is worth noting that AA had 767-300ERs that were younger than some of DL and UA’s 767-400s.
      The AA 767-300ERs were the result of AA not spending money on a fleet post 9/11 and then finding that they can’t reliably serve customers – problems that Delta and United did not seem to have for its 767s that were older than many of American’s.
      The “cherry on the cake” is that the 787-8’s cost per seat mile according to data which AA and UA have filed with the DOT is not any better than the 767-300ER because of the high cost of the new airframe and the fact that the economics of the 787 are best for larger models – which is true with most aircraft. The 787-8 is a heavy transatlantic aircraft per seat.
      The chances are fairly high that the 767-400 for both DL and UA will soldier on for the better part of the decade while the 767-300ER will still be around 5 years from now, limited largely by the airframe reaching design limits.

      1. Tim, You’re gloating again. Why is it worth noting that American’s 767-300s were younger than the “perfect airline’s”? There were only 17 in American’s fleet at the end of 2019 (along with 34 757s). There are other considerations beyond an arbitrary CASM statistic that drive an airline’s choice of aircraft. One is versatility. Another is simplicity. That’s why Southwest ordered 737-7 MAXs instead of A220s (the “favorite” among airline blog commentators). The 787 can be used for a number of missions a 767 simply can’t do, not to mention the 787s better cargo-carrying capability. To be fair, American’s 787s haven’t been used optimally, and the 767-300/400 probably are better suited for long-haul domestic service than the 787-8 and 777W (which skew the statistics). I’ll spare you the Mark Twain quote about statistics again. Life and business are full of trade-offs. There’s no one size fits all solution for all airline missions. That’s why aircraft manufacturers offer so many different models. Of course, the “armchair experts/CEOs” on airline blogs will blame Parker for the lack of maintenance (which is probably a fair criticism), even though he didn’t come on the scene until late in 2013.

      2. AA had 9 767-300ERs that were built and delivered new to AA in 2002-2003 after AA got rid of the TWA 763s that were all on very high leases due to TWA’s poor credit rating at the time AA acquired it. AA underinvested in the 763 fleet, with refurbishments done on the cheap and never nose to tail. One of those 9 newer build 763s was written off after an engine fire at ORD a few years back. The rest of the 763s were on their way out before COVID anyway and were largely 1988-1992 builds, thus older than UA and DL’s, but yes, UA and DL invested heavily in extending the life of these birds. AA did not.

  10. I get that the 757s and 767s (RIP) were older than dirt, but why were they in such a rush to retire the 330s? They couldn’t have been as old as the 757/767s, and fleet commonality can’t be worth THAT much if they’ve got the whole 320 family, no?

    1. Sam – There were a couple of things going on here. The A330-300s were on their way out long ago. There were only 9 left in the fleet and American had announced those were gone pre-pandemic because they were a small subfleet that was more than 20 years old and never had Main Cabin Extra onboard (outside of exits). I can fully understand why those went away.
      The A330-200s, however, had 15 aircraft in the fleet and were newer.
      They all had both premium economy and Main Cabin Extra. Those would have been much easier to bring back. I don’t know what state of storage they’re in, but I know something was required. My guess is that it’s more about pilots, spare parts, etc that they no longer have easy access to.

  11. It’s not just American that’s having trouble with Boeing (not) making delivery dates vis-a-vis the FAA. On Monday, you said Southwest’s 2022 capacity will be comparable to 2019’s. Now Southwest has FINALLY publicly admitted that their 114 scheduled MAX-7 deliveries in 2022 are in serious trouble. The FAA still has not certified the airplane. I believe someone stated a few months ago that Southwest had around 50 planes still parked in the desert. They’d better spend the money on whatever maintenance those ships need and forget about parking ANYTHING in 2022 if Boeing cannot perform. Maybe they can get some MAX-8s instead (some white tails, if any are left) for short-term use. Boeing will be paying both AA and WN for these latest debacles.

  12. On the opposite end of the fleet scale and for another airline but Scott Kirby said in Congressional hearings today that United regional carriers have 100 RJs parked because of the pilot shortage.

  13. AA should never have cancelled its A350 orders…

    Boeing can’t be trusted anymore to produce quality airliners.

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