Delta Air Lines has a problem, and it is called the Boeing 767. There is nothing wrong with the planes, but, instead, Delta has a problem when it comes to retiring the 767s. While it has set out plans to wave goodbye to the jets over the next few years, it does not have a clear replacement for the aircraft yet.
Delta’s Boeing 767s
At the start of 2020, Delta Air Lines had 56 Boeing 767-300ERs in its fleet with an average fleet age of just shy of 24 years old. These aging jets were an important plane for the airline. Largely operating transatlantic and South American services for Delta, the planes were not too big for many secondary markets where Delta was weaker, nor was the jet limited with its range and opportunities.
For example, the Boeing 767-300ER operated Delta’s long-haul services from Seattle to Osaka, Atlanta to Stuttgart, Atlanta to Buenos Aires, Orlando to Amsterdam, and many others.
Though the product onboard the 767-300ERs was getting outdated, they were fine on much of Delta’s routes with limited competition and routes where it did not need a lot of seat capacity.
The airline was not opposed to operating older jets. Yes, they cost a fair bit in maintenance, but the airline owned all of the 767s outright, making them cheaper to operate compared to financing and running new jets, though Delta had a steady stream of A330neos and A350s on order.
The crisis hits
2020 quickly dashed all of Delta’s plans, and the airline quickly turned to cut its costs and streamline its fleet. Some of the casualties in the wave of retirements were the Boeing 767-300ERs.
Seven Boeing 767-300ERs were retired by the end of the second quarter of 2020. Additional retirements were expected, but then, in September, Delta went deeper into the Boeing 767 retirements.
Delta announced it would retire all of its remaining 49 Boeing 767-300ERs by the end of the year in 2025, giving the airline about five years before retiring all of its 767-300ERs.
Further retirements followed, and Delta was left with only 34 Boeing 767-300ERs in its fleet at the end of 2020 with an average fleet age of 23.4 years old.
The remaining Delta 767 fleet
Delta’s 34 Boeing 767-300ERs are configured with room for 226 passengers onboard. This includes 26 in Delta One, in a staggered forward-facing 1-2-1 configuration.
Behind this are 35 Delta Comfort+ seats, which are extra-legroom economy seats. Rounding out the fleet are 165 standard economy seats. Each seat features access to power and a personal television, while Delta One seats are lie-flat.
Alongside the 34 767-300ERs, Delta also has 21 Boeing 767-400ERs in its fleet. This fleet, which has an average age of 20 years, has remained unchanged in number compared to 2019.
The Boeing 767-400ERs underwent a recent cabin refresh that saw the airline add in a true premium economy product and update its aging business class cabin.
The four-class Boeing 767s seat 238 passengers. This includes 34 in a revamped Delta One cabin that does not feature the Delta One Suites but a modified Delta One staggered forward-facing seat with no door.
Followed by this are 20 Premium Select seats, which are Delta’s premium economy seats. Lastly, there are 28 extra-legroom economy seats and 156 standard economy seats. All seats have access to USB and outlet power along with complimentary inflight entertainment via a seatback screen.
The Boeing 767-400ERs are staying
For now, Delta is keeping all of its Boeing 767-400ERs. Unlike the Boeing 777s, which also went a massive overhaul and were promptly retired at the start of the crisis, Delta has decided to keep the 767-400ERs for now.
The Boeing 767-400ERs are Delta’s choice of aircraft for flights to London, where the airline faces stiff competition. The 767-400ERs do make their way to other routes, such as between New York and São Paulo or Atlanta and Santiago. But, they are most reliably found between London and the United States.
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The 767-300ERs are going away
Delta has already indicated its 767-300ERs are reaching the end of their usable lifetime with the airline. It is not unusual for widebody jets to be retired when they get to the early to mid-20s. Aircraft age is less important than the number of cycles and flights a jet completes, but by the time the jet gets over 20 years of age, its cycles start to catch up, and it becomes time to retire the jets.
Delta has announced the Boeing 767 retirements without indicating what will replace the aircraft, which is a little problematic for the airline.
Delta does not have a clear replacement
Delta ended 2020 with a backlog of 49 widebody jets on order. This includes 20 Airbus A350-900s and 29 Airbus A330-900neos. All of the other jets Delta has on order are narrowbodies.
The Airbus A330-900neos might jump out as a 767 replacement, but there is an issue with these aircraft. They are too big for the missions the 767 flew. The A330-900neos seat 281 passengers. This includes 29 in the Delta One cabin, 28 in Premium Select, 56 in extra-legroom economy, and 168 in standard economy. These planes certainly would not work for some of Delta’s 767 routes, such as from New York to Madrid or Dakar.
The next smallest widebody in Delta’s fleet are the Airbus A330-200s, which seat 234 passengers. However, Delta only has 11 of these planes in its fleet, which is not nearly enough to replace all the lost Boeing 767-300ERs.
One possible replacement plan could be a combination of Boeing 767-400ERs and A330-200s after Delta shuffles around part of its fleet. But that would see Delta upend its London flying in favor of the A330-900neos, which may be a little too big for the highly competitive market.
The logistics of an aircraft order
The next option for Delta would be to order some more jets. But, which ones it will order is also not clear-cut. Boeing’s next-generation offering is the 787 Dreamliner. However, Delta has already done away with a 787 order after inheriting one from Northwest Airlines.
Delta could go back to the 787, but it would add another level of fleet complexity that the airline wants to do away with. Not to mention, inducting an entirely new fleet type is no easy task for an airline.
On the Airbus front, Airbus has a compelling product it could offer. That plane is the Airbus A330-800. Easily configurable with around 230 passengers, the jet could also be outfitted with the latest generation of Delta’s business and premium economy products.
Delta has some, but not a lot of time, to make a decision
The Airbus A330-800 has not sold well, but Airbus continues to offer it and has made the aircraft for the few customers who have purchased the jet. So, Delta is likely to get a good price on the A330-800s.
However, Delta is also strategic and wants to see what Boeing offers because Boeing’s product could be intriguing. Dubbed the “NMA,” this jet could come in two variants– one that would be sized to replace Delta’s Boeing 757s and another to replace its Boeing 767s, eliminating two issues for Delta at once.
The issue with waiting is that Boeing has been tight-lipped about its NMA offering and has yet to release a timeline or planned entry into service. Delta’s got a timer of the 767s, which puts some pressure on Boeing to get an NMA out there if it wants a Delta order, but there is only so much time Delta can let pass before it makes a decision.
If Airbus A330-800 sales pick up and Airbus starts to run low on the right delivery slots for Delta, then the airline could be stuck with the clock ticking on the 767 retirements without a true replacement, which would be another headache.
If Delta is left without its Boeing 767 fleet and a replacement plan, then it could run into issues with its pilots. In 2019, Delta’s pilots were unhappy with the airline’s transatlantic joint ventures, claiming that the agreements are skewed for more European flying than Delta flying.
That could be an issue again if Delta cuts more international long-haul service while its European partners expand flights with their jets and funneling more Delta passengers through partner hubs.
Delta also risks retiring its jets in the midst of an upswing in travel demand, which would leave it unable to capture all the potential passengers it could get if it had the jets to operate all the potential flights, leaving it losing market share to its competitors, which are already planning some incredible growth.
Barring some major aircraft shakeups at Delta and upgauges on a large portfolio of routes, then Delta has a problem, and it is called the Boeing 767.
What do you think Delta should do about replacing its Boeing 767s? Let us know in the comments!