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
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.
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?