What are airlines doing with the jets that should be flying to China?

Feb 4, 2020

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Global airlines are increasingly isolating China as the coronavirus spreads with flight cancellations now stretching into April, idling dozens of wide-body jets around the world.

That means all those Airbus A350s, Boeing 787s and 777s and other planes due to fly airlines’ normally robust schedules to Beijing, Shanghai and other points have, in effect, been put on leave — expiry unknown. What are they to do now? The answer is tricky.

Airlines can park the jets at a base where they will be ready for a quick-return-to-service in the hopes the virus soon disappears, though the likelihood of this appears low as the coronavirus nears pandemic status. They can send the planes in for maintenance, but this requires fitting the aircraft into pre-planned maintenance schedules and weighing just how much work to do — the more work, the longer the jet is out of commission. Or they can use the planes to add capacity elsewhere, though this would likely involve swapping a larger jet onto an already scheduled flight rather than adding an entirely new flight or route.

Airlines being forced to grapple with this sudden and unexpected scheduling puzzle are still figuring out which strategy makes the most sense. Whatever they decide, it is a challenge for schedule planners.

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“There really is not much these aircraft can do”, Atmosphere Research travel industry analyst and president Henry Harteveldt told TPG. “This is going to cost the airlines a chunk of change”.

A United Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft waits to take off at Beijing airport on July 25, 2018. - Beijing hailed "positive steps" as major US airlines and Hong Kong's flag carrier moved to comply on July 25 with its demand to list Taiwan as part of China, sparking anger on the island. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)
A United Boeing 777 waits to take off at Beijing Capital airport. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

United Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier to China, normally dedicates 15 to 16 jets — or about 7% of its wide-body fleet — to its Beijing Capital (PEK), Chengdu (CTU) and Shanghai Pudong (PVG) flights. These include Boeing 777s, both -200s and -300ERs, and 787s, according to Cirium schedules.

The Star Alliance carrier is still evaluating what it will do with these aircraft, likely resorting to some combination of parking several, doing maintenance on others and using the remaining jets to add seats on flights elsewhere in its schedule.

That comes as United’s schedule of more than nine daily flights to mainland China will be suspended from 6 February through 28 March. The airline is also suspending two of its three daily flights to Hong Kong (HKG), keeping just one daily service from San Francisco (SFO).

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A Delta Airbus A350 at ATL (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
A Delta Airbus A350. (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

Delta Air Lines dedicates roughly 10 jets to its six daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai. Aircraft include its newest models, the Airbus A330-900 and A350-900, as well as Boeing 767-300ERs and 777-200s, Cirium schedules show.

“We have an expansive and diverse network and will look to re-allocate our aircraft onto other routes”, the SkyTeam Alliance carrier said in an internal newsletter to flight attendants on 31 January that was reviewed by TPG.

Delta spokeswoman Susannah Thurston confirmed this to TPG, adding that the airline was still evaluating where the aircraft would fly.

Delta suspended service to China on Sunday (2 February) and plans, at least for now, to stay out until 30 April. The carrier’s planned move to Beijing’s new Daxing (PKX) airport on 28 March is now “under review,” Delta said in the flight attendant newsletter.

An American Airlines Boeing 787 (front) and Delta Airlines Airbus A350 aircraft (background, obscured) wait to take off at Beijing airport on July 25, 2018. - Beijing hailed "positive steps" as major US airlines and Hong Kong's flag carrier moved to comply on July 25 with its demand to list Taiwan as part of China, sparking anger on the island. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP) (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)
An American Airlines Boeing 787 and Delta Air Lines Airbus A350 wait to take off at Beijing Capital airport. (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

American Airlines operates just four daily flights, the least of any U.S. carrier, to Beijing and Shanghai using five or six aircraft. All of its flights are flown with Boeing 787 jets, according to Cirium

The Oneworld alliance carrier plans to do some preventative maintenance on the wide-body jets, as well as deploy them elsewhere in its schedule during the suspension, American spokeswoman Nichelle Tait told TPG.

American suspended its flights to China on Friday, 31 January, with plans to resume them on 27 March.

U.S. carriers are not the only ones debating what to do with idled jets that were due to fly to China. Lufthansa spokesman Tal Muscal told TPG the affected aircraft will either be brought in for maintenance or used as operational spares to support the rest of the airline’s schedule.

Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa and Swiss International Air Lines have all suspended service to mainland China. Their China flights are on an array of aircraft, including A330s, Airbus A380s, Boeing 747-8s and 767s, Cirium schedules show.

BEIJING - SEPTEMBER 02: (CHINA OUT) Lufthansa's third Airbus A380 which bears the name Peking, arrives at Capital International Airport on September 2, 2010 in Beijing, China. The Lufthansa Airbus A380 is the first European airline to operate regular flights from Frankfurt to Beijing. Tokyo and Beijing are the first destinations to have scheduled routes with Johannesburg being the third destination. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)
A Lufthansa A380 lands at Beijing Capital airport. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)

Virgin Atlantic Airways, which only has a daily flight to Shanghai on a 787-9, plans to either park the jets or use them to support the rest of its operations, spokesman Andrew Scott told TPG.

Airlines’ plans remain in flux with the coronavirus still spreading both inside and outside of China’s borders. Reallocating jets on short notice is not an easy task, as both flight and maintenance schedules — not to mention crew resources — are typically set months ahead of time.

“It’s just not easy to bring in a wide-body to an already sold and set flight schedule”, one airline employee told TPG.

While plans for the idled jets are still in flux, one thing travellers should not expect is a desert airfield of filled with parked A350s or 787s. These aircraft are high-cost assets for airlines and, if not forced to ground them, they will find a way to use them.

Featured image by Xinhua/ via Getty Images.

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