Travelers flying between Boston and Miami on American Airlines usually board a Boeing 737 or Airbus A321 – workhorse planes that traverse the country daily.
This spring, some passengers are getting a major plane upgrade for the 3 1/2 hour flight. American is swapping in a Boeing 777, a widebody jet with 100 more seats, seatback entertainment and other perks, on some of the flights.
United Airlines passengers might find the same surprise on select flights between Chicago and Las Vegas or Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. United usually uses a Boeing 737 on those routes but is swapping in a Boeing 777 or Boeing 787 Dreamliner on some flights.
The airplane shuffle is happening across the country due to steep international flight cuts by U.S. airlines amid the coronavirus outbreak. American, Delta and United have all suspended service between the U.S. and China and Hong Kong through April and reduced or canceled flights to cities in South Korea, Italy and elsewhere.
“Those airplanes are no longer flying (internationally) but are a cost burden to the airline if they do nothing with them,” said John Grant, senior aviation analyst with travel data and company OAG. “Trying to utilize them as effectively as possible makes sense.”
Grant analyzed airline domestic flight schedules for March and April and said he can’t recall a time where so many widebody jets were being used on flights within the United States. (In general, fewer than 3% of domestic flights are operated with the bigger, twin-aisle planes.)
In April, United will operate 2,672 domestic flights with widebody jets, compared with 1,732 a year ago, a 54% increase. American’s schedule shows 1,572 widebody domestic flights, a 37% increase, and Delta’s use will jump 73%, to 1,543 domestic flights.
Grant said airlines mine their schedules to find routes where they can best fill a bigger plane. One of the most logical places: flights between their major hubs, which have a strong mix of local and connecting passengers and plenty of widebody flight crews.
OAG’s analysis, for example, shows a big increase in the number of flights between Dallas and Chicago American is operating with a bigger plane in March and April. The same is true for Denver-San Francisco flights on United.
Grant said Delta is moving some of its idled widebodies on popular spring vacation routes, including Atlanta-Phoenix. In March, the peak of Phoenix tourism season thanks to Major League Baseball spring training games and spring break vacations, the airline has 59 flights scheduled on an Airbus A330, Boeing 767 or Boeing 777, compared with 29 in March 2019 and 31 in March 2018.
The A330-300 has nearly 300 seats, including 34 of the swank Delta One suites with sliding privacy doors, according to SeatGuru. The Airbus A321 used on other flights on the route, in comparison, has 192 seats, none of them lie-flat.
The big beneficiaries of the swankier planes, of course, are travelers who pay a premium (albeit it a reduced premium given the sharp drop in travel demand) to sit in the front of the plane. They will find lie-flat seats that aren’t the norm on their usual U.S. routes. Travelers with elite frequent flyer status might find themselves sitting there for free thanks to the bigger plane and more chances at an upgrade.
But all travelers who find themselves on the widebody jets will benefit, Grant said, flying newer aircraft than they’re used to, with more perks including upgraded in-flight entertainment and seats.
Grant said the good times for travelers who geek out about plane type aren’t expected to last. The major U.S. airlines have only suspended or reduced trans-Pacific flights through the end of April.
And the widebody planes could disappear from non-traditional U.S. routes even sooner if domestic travel demand remains weak or worsens, he said. Southwest Airlines, which mainly operates within the United States, said Thursday that it’s seen a 9/11-like decline in travel demand in the past week.
U.S. airlines may follow their international counterparts and decide its more economical to park the planes. United executives on Wednesday said the airline will park an undisclosed number of widebody jets as part of an aggressive plan to cope with the steep decline travel demand.
“Enjoy it while you can,” Grant said.