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airlines smaller planes Lufthansa 747

Have we entered the era of smaller airplanes for good?

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about airlines around the world beginning to favor smaller aircraft. Not just amid the pandemic but for the foreseeable future as well. The debate was given fuel when Lufthansa’s CEO made comments about potential down-gauging of its fleet ahead. But have we really entered the era of smaller airplanes for good?

Many have argued that even when demand for air travel does return there will be less of it overall because of a precipitous and permanent drop in business travel. And beyond that, even where demand does exist, it will be for convenient, point-to-point service, not on A380s via big hubs – as smaller planes emerge that are capable of flying farther and people shy away from big, crowded airports and the hassle of connecting. All of which calls for smaller planes. I’ve argued recently that this seems a little hasty. Nevertheless, the jury is out, and as they say – only time will tell.

Have smaller planes taken over flying?

One thing we can look at is whether the notion that smaller planes rule the day holds true at major airlines right now. And pulling some Flightradar24 data we can see that this has been happening – mostly. The headline takeaway seems to be that bigger planes do still have their place, but for obvious reasons smaller wide-bodies have proven more desirable on many global routes during the past year.

smaller airplanes for good 787 Dreamliner
For some airlines the 787-8, pictured here flying for United, is an ideal smaller plane for times of low demand.

Lufthansa dropped its Very Large Aircraft quickly

If we look at Lufthansa’s data, the trend is very clear right from the beginning of the pandemic. The A380 and the 747s (both -400 and -8I) took a definitive hit beginning in March 2020. That was it for the A380 and the 747-400 for good, it seems. The small rebound in A380 flights recorded in recent months were storage-related. And since the pandemic started, it’s clear that the smaller A330 has been clearly favored, taking up nearly double the percentage of flying it had at Lufthansa pre-pandemic.

Chart Lufthansa wide-body flights

What’s most interesting here is that the 747-8I did come back, in some weeks to pre-pandemic levels. That’s quite a big plane. It is probably hard to fill these days. But it is Lufthansa’s flagship now – it has a First Class cabin and it can carry quite a bit of cargo. As a result it kept flying for a while on the bigger US routes like LAX. However recent dips in demand, and the winter season, saw the smaller and more fuel-efficient A350 come in to replace it on many routes. As I write this the Lufthansa 747-8I is in flight on just two routes – Mexico City (MEX) and Buenos Aires (EZE) to Frankfurt (FRA).

Airlines smaller airplanes for good Lufthansa 747-8I
Lufthansa has just two 747-8I flights currently enroute, both headed back to Europe from the Americas.

If I were to take a guess, I’d say we continue to see the 747-8I for some time on these bigger routes and in busier seasons. It may turn out to be one of the last options for passengers to fly a 747 a few years from now. Eventually, though, the more efficient 777X will replace it. Though Lufthansa has said it’s looking to shift to smaller airplanes overall, the 777X seems a natural fit for its big hub to hub routes. I don’t think we’ll see a day when the A350 is the largest plane in Lufthansa’s fleet – at least as long as Germany remains Europe’s largest economy.

Delta favors smaller, but only by a little bit

If we look at Delta, which also has a wide range of wide-bodies in its fleet, the picture is a little more complicated. In part that’s because initially its 777s and A350s (both of which fit about 300 seats) took over quite a lot of flying while its smaller 767s (200 to 240 seats or so) were more or less parked.

Delta aircraft type wide-body flights

Since then, however, the 777 fleet has been retired and the 767s (both -300 and -400 series) have been doing nearly 60% of Delta’s wide-body flying. And its smallest Airbus wide-body, the A330-200, has flown much less throughout the pandemic. The A330-300, A330-900neo and A350-900 have filled in the rest of the flying, but while they were doing a majority of the wide-body flying in the first months, they’re not back to flying roughly the same percentage of Delta’s wide-body flights as before the pandemic.

It’s interesting to note that a number of 767s have been retired during this time, and A330-300s have been used to fill the gaps where necessary despite having a higher seat count. If no 767s had been retired it’s likely the total percentage of flights run with the 767 would be even higher.

smaller airplanes for good
Delta’s A350 is now one of the larger planes in its fleet.

What’s the bottom line?

It seems that airlines have tended to park their biggest planes, but perhaps not as drastically as some might have expected. That may have had a lot to do with cargo capacity. But cargo capacity will continue to be a consideration post-pandemic as well, so it’s not as if these planes will prove useless once things get back to normal. And if we see the boom in travel demand that some are predicting is on the way, many of these larger aircraft may see they get plenty of use yet.

Will there be less very large aircraft in airline fleets overall? Yes, probably. The A380 is all but done for except at a handful of airlines. And will smaller, long-range planes like the 787 prove popular in the years ahead? No doubt. But the bigger, fuel efficient planes like the 777X and A350-1000 will almost certainly still have their place in the sky too.

Featured image © Javier Rodriguez
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