Demand and efficiencies change over time, but there are a few good reasons why larger aircraft may be returning to shorter flights.
It Wasn’t So Long Ago
Some of my fondest memories of flying when I was younger were on DC-10s. I recall at least two trips on the wide-body trijet that would never happen today. Denver to Omaha (which also sometimes featured a 757) and Chicago to Fort Myers on United were both flown on the huge jets better suited for trans-Atlantic flights from the east coast and the west coast to Hawai’i. On at least one occasion, the then-revolutionary 777-200 was intentionally flown through Omaha, which was a big deal for a 12-year old aviation geek like myself.
It was less than 20 years ago that American Airlines was flying 767 and 757 aircraft on their trans-continental routes only to be replaced by near shuttle service on the smaller A321T. While in many ways, this was an upgrade (more frequent flights and modern updates to the hard product), some long for the days of bigger jets for the ride.
A few years further back and some can remember 747s used domestically by other carriers.
Planes Are Parked
Back in March, airlines were searching for places to park planes. More than 16,000 had been idled worldwide, and while some have returned to service, international traffic is still at a mere drip from the waterfall it had become in 2019. If Southwest Chairman Gary Kelly is right, business traffic won’t return for some time (though I think his prediction of ten years is absurd.)
For Southwest, fleet changes are from 737-800s to the smaller 737-700s (and potentially the MAX.) But for other carriers – American, Delta, and United – larger, fuel-efficient aircraft like the 787, A350, and in some cases the 777-300ER, are seeing limited action.
While larger jets have been phased out in favor of smaller jets with more frequent schedules, the landscape has changed and the fact of the matter is, payments on these notes won’t wait for the world to re-open, it’s smart to put them to use now.
Schedules Have Changed
United Airlines and American Airlines have added many point-to-point flights to sunny markets from around the country. While Pittsburgh to Fort Myers or Indianapolis to Cancun wouldn’t be the best choice for re-introducing wide-bodies to the domestic market, United has added 787-10 to trans-con routes and more could be on the way.
The shift from larger planes flying domestically changed for a number of reasons but one of the most important ones was the need to offer a number of flights to suit business travellers. For example, Pittsburgh to Houston was operating most days (Pre-COVID) four times daily on E170/175s instead of one fully loaded 777-200, even though the total number of passengers might justify it. But four flights on smaller aircraft offered more flexibility to business people who may not want to waste a day waiting in Houston for a connecting flight, they’d simply book with a more convenient carrier.
But business travel is down, way down, and isn’t coming back any time soon according to industry experts. However, leisure travel is recovering much more quickly, this the shift to heavy leisure markets. It may, again, make sense for United to fly heavy aircraft to smaller markets like Fort Myers, or for United to operate a 787 on some flights to Cancun or Cabo San Lucas.
While the jury is still out both with the recovery and consumer response, airlines have identified some areas for which they can realize short term gains. Larger markets like New York, Chicago, LA, and Houston to smaller markets like Jacksonville, Tampa, and Cozumel might see some of the bigger planes return to their airports. To me, it seems to make more sense to fly the aircraft than leaving them parked, they are paying for the planes whether they fly or not. It could also give passengers more space to stretch out, reduce customer proximity, and introduce some customers to an experience they only would have encountered when travelling long-haul, something many domestic US flyers never do.
What do you think? Will we see a return of larger aircraft to shorter flights?