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Air Transport: Retiring Sooner Than Expected - Long-established Airliners

With the Covid-19 pandemic devastating the world's economies, air transport and airlines have been harder hit than most industries. Entirely reliant on the freedom and ability of both people and goods to travel, many airlines have borrowed and invested in new, quieter and cleaner aircraft types. The natural prpgression from older to newer types of aircraft has however, been dramatically affected by the virtual grounding of the airline industry. Aviation writer James White takes a personal look at the effect.

Following the withdrawal of the Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 fleet, I started wondering what types other airlines could potentially withdraw from their fleets. Most will be temporary, but there could well be a few fleet groups that will disappear from the skies for good. Whilst there is no insider knowledge behind my thoughts (as usual), I figured I’d share what could well be feasible.

Post 9/11, the DC10, L1011 Tristar, Boeing 727 and Boeing 737-200 disappeared from mainstream flying. So I’m basing my theories on a similar pattern. Older types that are on their way out anyway, that could have their retirement expedited. I’m not saying any of these aircraft will be disappearing overnight. But they could disappear much quicker than originally anticipated.

Lufthansa will become the latest airline to retire the Boeing 747-400 from tomorrow. Two aircraft will position from Frankfurt and Beijing to Twente in The Netherlands for scrap. The two 747’s that are being retired are:

D-ABTL (2002)

D-ABVO (1996)

The following appeared on the Air France/KLM site this afternoon:

'Faced with the COVID-19 crisis and given its impact on expected activity levels, the Air France-KLM group announces today that it will stop operating Air France Airbus A380s. Initially planned for the end of 2022, the withdrawal of the Airbus A380 fleet is part of the fleet simplification strategy of the Air France-KLM group which aims to make it more competitive, by continuing its transformation with more modern, more efficient aircraft whose environmental footprint is considerably reduced. Five of the Airbus A380s in the current fleet are owned by Air France or under finance lease, the other four are under operating leases. The overall impact of the depreciation of the Airbus A380 fleet is estimated at 500 million euros and will be recognized in the second quarter of 2020 in non-current income'.

Virgin Atlantic have ended their operations at London Gatwick - along with this, they will also retire their Boeing 747 fleet. Lufthansa announced this afternoon that they would 'permanently decommission' 6 of their A380’s. In addition, they will also retire 7 Airbus A340’s and 5 Boeing 747’s. Eleven Airbus A320’s will also be retired from their fleet. Reuters is reporting that American will retire their Airbus A330-300 fleet, along with a number of older Boeing 737-800’s and their Embraer E190 fleet.

  • American Airlines have announced that their Boeing 757 and 767 fleets will be retired. The 767 will leave by May 2020. The 757 by 2021.

  • KLM have announced that their Boeing 747 fleet will be retired by the end of March 2020.

  • Air France have grounded their A380 fleet. At the moment, its unknown whether this is a temporary or permanent measure, but with the fleet planned to be retired in the next couple of years anyway, they could well be gone for good.

  • Delta Airlines have announced that they will expedite the retirement of their older fleet members. Included in this will be the MD88/MD90 fleet.

  • A source from within British Airways said that whilst some Boeing 747’s would likely be retired earlier than planned, they “guaranteed” that there will still be some around for up to 4 years.

  • Both the British Airways Boeing 777-200’s will be heading for scrap at Kemble imminently

Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 – CONFIRMED

As part of the ongoing modernisation of the Virgin Atlantic fleet, the older types are being retired. The Boeing 747 fleet has been winding down since 2016. The final aircraft is due to leave the fleet in 2021. However, I’ve long been doubtful that they would last this long. With the Airbus A350 coming online fairly successfully, this could well speed up the retirement of the 747 fleet anyway. And if flights have to be adjusted further, it could be that not only the A340’s will be leaving.

Lufthansa Airbus A380 – Confirmed 6 to retire.

Lufthansa have grounded their entire Airbus A380 fleet until at least May. The aircraft has been notoriously difficult to make a profit on if it’s anything less than full. With the fleet grounded, they will make even less money for the airline. If the grounding carries on for more than a couple of months, will they return to service with the airline? Lufthansa has a sizeable fleet of Boeing 747 aircraft that could take up any potential slack. They are also due to receive the new Boeing 777X in the next 12-18 months.

British Airways Boeing 747-400 – Won't happen.

The British Airways Boeing 747 fleet has been winding down for a number of years already. The last of which will be gone by 2025. With the A350 having joined the fleet in 2019 and the Boeing 787-10 due to be delivered imminently, could the Boeing 747’s days in British Airways colours be numbered? If long haul flights end up being cut back, its highly likely the airline will park up their Boeing 747 over anything more economical.

There has already been mention of at least one of the G-CIV* series 747’s heading off to be scrapped earlier than planned. If the downturn carries on for much longer, whats to say a few more won’t be going?

Although according to Tim Byatt, a 747 captain on Twitter, this is purely coincidental. Well, maybe at the moment, but who knows what the next few months will hold.

British Airways Boeing 777-200 – CONFIRMED

Lets be clear – I’m not talking about the -200ER, of which British Airways has a sizeable fleet. I am talking about the A market 777-200 aircraft which the airline have. The first of which has already been retired. Although with the type slated to be gone by the end of 2020 anyway, this shouldn’t really come as a major surprise.

American Airlines Boeing 757 – CONFIRMED

Already long past their sell by date, these aircraft have found a new lease of life in the past decade serving long, thin routes across the Atlantic. However, if those routes dry up then there wont be any need for these aircraft. Whilst these aircraft are also used domestically, American has well over 200 Airbus A321 aircraft to fill the void if needed. In the coming years, American will be replacing their 757 fleet with the A321XLR on longer sectors.

UPDATE: Confirmed to be leaving between May 2020 and summer 2021

American Airlines Boeing 767 – CONFIRMED

Much like the airlines 757 fleet, American Airlines’ Boeing 767 fleet is also a little past their prime. Already being retired, the current worldwide situation could well speed the process up. American have a sizeable fleet of more modern Boeing 787 aircraft ready to step in and fill the void, so the Boeing 767 could well find itself redundant. As it stands, the plan is to have just 5 in service by the end of 2020 anyway. This number could easily be disposed of if demand dries up too much.

UPDATE: Confirmed to be grounded by the end of May 2020

American Airlines Airbus A330-300 – CONFIRMED

Inherited by American Airlines when they merged with US Airways, the older Airbus A330-300 fleet have been on thin ice for a while now. The fleet of 9 were due to be gone by the end of 2019, but this plan changed. Although they have managed to hang on so far, could this be what finally sends them to the desert?

Air France Airbus A380 – CONFIRMED

Air France have already sent their first Airbus A380 to the scrap yard long before its time is up. And they have already announced that their fleet will be retired by 2022 anyway. With a major economic downturn, could this speed up the retirement? As mentioned above, Lufthansa have already parked up their A380 fleet. If Air France do the same, there’s a strong possibility that they will be parked up for good.

UPDATE: Air France announced that their entire Airbus A380 fleet will be grounded as of 16th March 2020.

Update: The airline confirmed on 20th May that the fleet would be retired immediately.

Air France Airbus A318

At the opposite end of the scale to above, we have the Airbus A318. This particular variant was by far the least popular member of the Airbus A320 series. This was mainly due to the fact that there are far more economical 100 seat aircraft on the market. And that’s what the majority of airlines went with. Air France announced in late 2019 that their Airbus A318 fleet would be retired in favour of the more modern Airbus A220 series. Whilst no timescale has been given, the fleet could be parked up during a quieter period. Then once things pick up again, they could start taking delivery of the new aircraft. At least in a perfect world.

HiFly Airbus A380

When HiFly announced that they would be taking delivery of a former Singapore Airlines Airbus A380, there was most definitely a collective “WTF” from the #AvGeek community.

Whilst it has seen some use for the airline, most notably during the Thomas Cook failure, it’s certainly been on the ground more than it’s been in the air. I guess you could argue that it’s much the same for all of these types of airline. However, the Airbus A380 is a little bit too much plane to be just sat around.

If airlines have a number of their own aircraft parked up, they won’t have too much need to lease in aircraft from other airlines. That is unless demand picks up to a point that is unexpected.

Malaysia Airlines Airbus A380

Ever since Malaysia Airlines all but stopped flying to Europe, their Airbus A380 fleet has been a little redundant. Almost seen as a bit of a vanity project during the airlines better days, they have become more of a hindrance in recent years. Will the Malaysia Airlines A380 finally leave the fleet after 8 years in service?

KLM Boeing 747-400 – CONFIRMED

Another airline that has been retiring the Boeing 747-400 over the past years. This could well see KLM speed up this process if the demand for capacity just isn’t there.

UPDATE: KLM have announced that they will retire their remaining Boeing 747 aircraft by the end of March 2020. The Boeing 747 has been part of the KLM fleet for 50 years.

United Airlines Boeing 757

United Airlines are much like American when it comes to their Boeing 757 fleet. They use them for long, thin sectors and the odd domestic route. They have already announced that the type will be replaced by the A321XLR and Boeing 737MAX 10 in a couple of years, so they already have a replacement in line. If demand drops off for a year or so, then they may not need their 757 fleet for much longer.

What Fleet Groups Could Be Reduced Dramatically?

Whilst retiring fleets could be on the cards for some, other airlines could reduce certain members of their fleet significantly. Mainly because there either isn’t a suitable replacement type at the moment or there is still a need for a particular aircraft type – just not in a quantity quite as large as before.

Delta Airlines MD88/MD90 – Retired June 2020

Delta Airlines have a huge number of MD88/MD90 aircraft. Over 70 in fact. And being one of the more major airlines to no be affected by the 737MAX issues, it’s not like they have any spare aircraft capacity to look forward to either. However, this aircraft fleet is of the previous generation. As such, they are not as economical as the Airbus A320 series or Boeing 737NG series. Whilst parking up the whole fleet of 74 would cause a significant dent in their operation, sending 30 or so to the scrapyard might not be out of the question.

British Airways Airbus A319

Of the short haul Airbus A320series that British Airways operate, it’s only the Airbus A319 that have been retired so far (if we forget the ancient 1980’s build A320’s that were inherited from British Caledonian). In March 2020, the airline sent three off to be scrapped in one day. Currently incoming are the latest Airbus A320neo and A321neo. Rather than replacing the A320 and A321 like for like, it’s the smaller A319 that is being disposed of. If demand drops off more significantly, I could potentially see only the 10 former bmi examples remain.

Swiss Airbus A320 series

There are three factors that could see Swiss reduce their A319/A320/A321 fleet significantly. First off, they now have a very decent sized Airbus A220 fleet. Secondly, they have recently taken delivery of their first Airbus A320neo. Finally, a decent number of their A320 series fleet is over 20 years old now. So in the prime position to be retired anyway.

Lufthansa Airbus A320 series – CONFIRMED.

Similar to above. Lufthansa have a large fleet of Airbus A320 series aircraft. Most of which are only a few years old. Although on the other hand, they are also flying some of the oldest A320’s still in operation. With the news breaking this week that the Lufthansa Group is planning to ground up to 150 aircraft, will the oldest members make it back into the air?

Cathay Pacific – Everything!

I genuinely fear for Cathay Pacific. Having had the issues in Hong Kong severely affect their loads in 2019, the Coronavirus breaking out on their doorstep is probably the last thing they needed. Having cut a number of flights, closed three of their lounges in Hong Kong and grounded more than half of their fleet, hopefully this will be enough for them to come out the other side strongly.

It’s also worth noting that Korean Air are in a similar position to Cathay Pacific. To the point where their CEO has publicly said that if things stay like this for many months, then the airline could struggle to survive.

© James White 2020.

All images © James White.

This article was first published on Inflight With James, June 2020.

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