Delta Air Lines Looks To Backfill Aggressive Aircraft Retirements

Delta Air Lines aggressively retired aircraft in 2020. The airline withdrew over 200 aircraft from its fleet as it managed the near-term impact of the pandemic. Now, with traffic coming back, Delta is trying to backfill those retired aircraft. So far, it appears the airline is turning to the used market as airlines offload jets they no longer need or would like to pay for. If they are coming at attractive rates, which they most likely are, it could be a winning decision for Delta in the long run.

Delta Airbus A350
Delta Air Lines has reportedly secured seven former Airbus A350-900s from LATAM. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Delta’s aggressive 2020 retirements

Delta Air Lines retired 227 aircraft in 2020. The following planes exited Delta’s fleet:

  • 41 Boeing 717s
  • 10 Boeing 737-700s
  • 22 Boeing 767-300ERs
  • 18 Boeing 777-200s
  • 10 Airbus A320s
  • 47 McDonnell Douglas MD-88s
  • 30 McDonnell Douglas MD-90s

In the case of the MD family of jets, Delta had already slated these aircraft for retirement over the next few years but chose to accelerate those retirements with the onset of the crisis.

Delta MD-90
The “Mad Dogs” were a casualty in 2020. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Turning to the other fleets, the Boeing 777s and 737-700s are all about reducing inefficiencies. These were small fleets in the part of Delta’s larger fleet strategy, and the missions the 737-700 can accomplish, other jets in Delta’s fleet can easily take over.

As for the 777s, Delta had 18 of them in its fleet. This included 10 of the 777-200LRs and eight 777-200ERs. With the Airbus A350-900 on order, Delta determined that it did not need these jets for the time being.

Delta Getty
Delta’s 777s served an important role. Photo: Getty Images

The last batch of 717s, 767-300ERs, and A320s are about waving goodbye to older aircraft. These aircraft were likely approaching the cycle for more heavy maintenance that would exceed the value Delta thinks it can get out of the planes or had immediate nice replacements (as is the case with the Boeing 717s).

The remainder of the retirements in Delta’s fleet came from regional capacity that was removed. This primarily included the 50-seater Bombardier CRJ200s.

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Delta still has to backfill capacity

While Delta streamlined its fleet to manage the crisis, that does not leave the airline in a tremendous position to handle the recovery. Delta now has to turn its fleet planning perspective away from short-term management to preparing for long-term recovery.

One of the strategies for backfilling the crisis has appeared in the airline’s recent fleet decisions. In April, Delta added 25 Airbus A321neo aircraft to its order and accelerated the delivery of two Airbus A350-900s and one Airbus A330neo to the second half of 2022.

LATAM Airbus A350-900
LATAM is moving away from the Airbus A350-900, and Delta is reportedly (and somewhat ironically) getting ready to take the former LATAM A350s. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

However, there is another element at play here as well. It has been rumored that Delta was in talks to take over LATAM’s former Airbus A350-900s and Boeing 737-900ERs from Lion Air for nearly a month now. Reporting from Jon Ostrower at The Air Current indicates that Delta is at the end stages of aircraft acquisition for seven A350-900s and 29 Boeing 737-900ERs.

Further adding fuel to the fire is that Delta has secured registration numbers for aircraft. One such example includes N575DZ, which, according to the FAA registry, was assigned to an Airbus A350-900 on June 22nd, 2021. This aircraft is registered under the Bank of Utah, which is a notable trustee for aircraft. Data from multiple sources, including, also places the aircraft with the Atlanta-based carrier. Delta Air Lines declined to comment on the Airbus A350-900.

Why those planes make sense

Delta Air Lines has, historically, turned to taking on used aircraft to add capacity quickly. For example, the Boeing 717s  and MD jets were additions to the fleet that came at relatively low costs and allowed Delta to add more flying quicker. Or, in the case of the 717s, to help replace the DC-9s.

LATAM’s Airbus A350s are all relatively young, so Delta can get many flying years out of them. It is somewhat ironic that Delta is now taking LATAM A350s after paying over $60 million last year to get out of buying the A350s. The airline certainly must be getting a good deal on them through a lessor.

DL A350
Delta is already a noted Airbus A350-900 operator. Photo: Getty Images

Moreso, the Boeing 777 filled an important role in Delta’s fleet, and adding more Airbus A350s will help recover that lost capacity. Delta already plans to fly the Airbus A350-900 nonstop to Johannesburg, a notable Boeing 777-200LR route, already flies them to Sydney and expects those planes to reach other destinations that the -200LR commonly frequented.

Delta also has turned to flying larger narrowbody aircraft on more domestic routes. The Boeing 737-900ER fits that bill, and those aircraft are also likely coming at a good deal. Seating 180 passengers, they are ideal for routes out of major hubs and to and from major cities. They are also more environmentally friendly and provide a far better passenger experience than the aging MD jets.

DL 737-900
The Boeing 737-900ERs in Delta’s fleet seat 180 passengers. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The 737-900ERs will not backfill all of that lost capacity from the MDs and the A320s, but it does not need to do all of that work. Delta has continued to take new Airbus A321s, and the A321neos are also on their way, which will cover all of that capacity and then some. Meanwhile, the perfect 717 replacement is the Airbus A220, which Delta is also continuing to take delivery of.

The benefit of this acquisition is also that Delta gets to maintain a simplified fleet. The airline is already well acquainted with the Boeing 737-900ER and the Airbus A350-900 and plans on flying those aircraft for a long time to come.

Delta 737-900ER
The Boeing 737-900ER is Delta’s single largest fleet type (by shell count). Photo: Getty Images

At the end of the day, Delta may still end up having a lower shell count of aircraft post-crisis. That may have an impact on Delta’s overall destination count. However, it still has opportunities to expand its fleet in the future, and there will almost certainly be excellent options for more used jets like the Airbus A350 in the coming years.

The biggest question now is how quickly Delta will get the planes into service. The airline has the benefit of not needing to wait for them to roll off a production line, but the aircraft will need to be repainted, and the interiors reconfigured with Delta’s product. That will take some time, but it should still be relatively quick.

Things could change. Previous Delta rumors, such as the one that the airline would be adding seatback entertainment to the Boeing 717s or else trading those jets in for 737 MAX aircraft, have not come to fruition. However, this one is starting to have a paper trail to prove it, and Delta is certainly in a position where it can turn to picking up used aircraft at attractive rates.

Do you think Delta should take on the LATAM A350s and Lion Air 737-900ERs? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!