Why Do Some Airlines Rotate Their Aircraft Around Bases?

Airlines strive for efficiency. If they run an efficient operation, they can serve more passengers, increase their reliability and, in the long-run, run a more profitable operation. However, sometimes airlines do things that don’t make the most sense. Some airlines rotate their aircraft around bases while others base specific airport only at one city. Let’s take a look at why airlines would rotate their aircraft around bases.

Southwest rotates their fleet around. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Maintenance

One of the biggest reasons for fleet rotation is maintenance. Aircraft need heavy maintenance checks at various intervals that can only be performed at dedicated maintenance areas. Thus, an airline would likely find it sensible to fly an aircraft around on a few routes before rotating the aircraft to another base for maintenance. Or, the airline could shuffle one plane around to another base in order to take over operations for an out-of-service aircraft.

Heavy aircraft maintenance may require some airline fleet rotation. Photo: American Airlines

In many cases, this works for an aircraft that isn’t based at a hub. For example, Delta Air Lines operates a route from Indianapolis to Paris. However, the aircraft could need additional maintenance that can only be conducted in a larger maintenance base like Atlanta. So, the aircraft is rotated from Indianapolis to Atlanta.

Capacity Increases

Airlines with multiple hubs may choose to retool their capacity on certain routes and from certain hubs. For example, during the winter season, airlines may seek to increase capacity to warmer destinations. As a result, a route from Chicago to Paris might not be as profitable in December as a route from Dallas to Hawaii would be. Thus, an airline could seasonally rotate the aircraft around to increase capacity on a given route.

On the other hand, some airlines operate aircraft with multiple different configurations. In some cases, it is better for an airline to fly certain configurations during certain times. High premium demand would surround major recurring conferences or events while high tourist demand would surround events such as sporting matches or festivals.

American Airlines flies 787s with multiple different seating configurations. Rendering: American Airlines

Schedule alignment

Setting up flight schedules to facilitate the best connections is a difficult task. In some cases, airlines will rotate aircraft between hubs with relative speed to facilitate connections. For example, Delta isn’t working on building up connections out of Indianapolis on their route from Indianapolis to Paris. Instead, Delta is focusing on getting passengers to connect with Air France.

As a result, Delta may decide that is best to turn around the aircraft quickly and use it to fly to a different hub in order to facilitate connections at the other hub. Meanwhile, another aircraft would be rotated to Indianapolis at a later time in the day to facilitate the maximum number of connections.

Delta 767
A Delta Air Lines 767. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

Business model

Some airlines simply operate on the model of rotating aircraft around. Notoriously, Southwest flies aircraft around with relative consistency. This is because airline fleet rotation is generally based on the hub and spoke model. Southwest doesn’t subscribe to this kind of practice so, for them, it is commonplace to rotate aircraft around on a regular basis. This works the best for them and for their schedule since an aircraft is not on the ground too long.

Southwest Airlines rotates their fleet around consistently as part of their point-to-point model. Photo: Southwest

Overall

While it may make more sense to leave an aircraft based out of a single hub, it sometimes works out better for an airline to rotate their fleet around hubs. This is especially true for airlines with a large fleet. Not all fleet rotations occur because of one of the aforementioned reasons, however, these are some common reasons for aircraft rotation.

Why do you think airlines rotate their fleet around? Let us know in the comments!

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