What’s Happening To All The Widebodies Not Flying To China?

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The impact of China’s quarantine is so large that airlines have been forced to cancel weeks of routes. But what has actually happened to their widebody aircraft that are no longer flying to China? Where did they go? Let’s find out.

United Airlines Aircraft
Where have all the China-bound widebody aircraft gone? Photo: Getty Images

What are the details?

In a recent article, we discussed how air traffic to China is down and massively affecting international travel in the region (up to 90% of Taiwan’s international travel is down).

But an unintended side effect of these route cancelations is that airlines are left with a handful of widebody aircraft that they cannot easily reschedule elsewhere. Some of these China-reserved fleets are huge, with United Airlines looking to redeploy up to 19 widebody aircraft.

Thus, these airlines are faced with a choice. Either deploy an aircraft which provides way too much capacity for a route, or send the aircraft in for a new paint job and makeover. What are United Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta Air Lines doing with their China widebody fleets?

What will United do with its China Fleet?

That fleet of 19 widebody aircraft that United uses to fly to China, mostly Boeing 777-300ERs and Boeing 787s, will be moved to domestic routes within the USA. According to Bloomberg, this means that some short-haul routes that normally are operated by a Boeing 737, will be flown by the much bigger 777.

United Airlines at Denver
The bigger United widebodies have been deployed on small domestic routes. Photo: Getty

This is a capacity difference of around 350 seats vs 166 seats, essentially doubling the number of seats available on some routes. Likely this will cause a price drop (as United tries to book as many as possible to make the flight profitable), and competitors will also try to match. A win for customers looking to fly domestically.

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United might also send one or two of these aircraft in for a new paint job as it rolls out its new livery. However, it appears that most of the widebody fleet has already been painted (if only they knew in advance then it would have been great timing).

Aircraft Paint
United’s new paint job. Photo: United Airlines

What about American Airlines?

American Airlines uses a similar mix of widebody aircraft as United, Boeing 787s and 777-300ERs to China. They will be using their spare widebody aircraft to actually swap out their smaller aircraft (Boeing 757s and 777-200s) on international routes from Dallas to Mexico and Europe, giving a chance to overhaul the smaller aircraft and slightly increase capacity on these routes.

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The American Airlines plan seems to be less impactful than the domestic swap of United, but we should still see a price drop of seats from Texas as more enter the market.

American Airlines 787
American has also parked several aircraft at empty ramp locations. Photo: Getty

Any overcapacity will result in the aircraft being put into maintenance or just on standby as a spare aircraft. I’m sure American Airlines can find a spare ramp to park the aircraft somewhere in North America.

What about other North American Airlines?

As for Delta and Air Canada, they will be moving their fleets from China to European destinations. They have not been so forthcoming with where they will deploy these aircraft, but you might see a capacity upgrade from select cities to Europe.

Overall these airlines have found some pretty creative solutions to temporally park their widebody fleets, keeping them and their crews in operation until the ban to China is lifted hopefully in the next few weeks.

What do you think of this news? Let us know in the comments.

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