Which Widebody Aircraft Have Flown The Most During The Pandemic?

Even though practically all aviation activity was heavily affected by the conditions of the global health crisis, long-haul travel has been the most notable victim in the industry. With this in mind, Simple Flying thought to take a look at which widebody aircraft have been flying the most during the difficult situation.

Qatar Airways 777
We took the opportunity to compare Airbus and Boeing widebodies between January 2020 and February 2021. Photo: Qatar Airways

A massive downturn

Most long-haul operations are flown by widebody aircraft. While the 737 MAX (which was already grounded for the bulk of the pandemic) and the Airbus A321LR offer greater opportunities for narrowbodies, they are no match for the range of, say, an A350-900 Ultra Long Range, which has a range of up to 9,700 nautical miles (18,000 kilometers).

So, with the rise of stringent travel restrictions across the globe, it’s only natural that widebody aircraft would have been heavily grounded since the rise of the pandemic last spring. With some help from data provided by RadarBox.com, we can look at the activity patterns. The y-axis shows figures for flights, while the x-axis shows dates.

Early transformations

It’s plain to see that the Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 were both the most active aircraft at the beginning of the year. They both performed up to nearly 3,000 flights a day each. However, it was the A330 that rapidly declined first, dropping to nearly under 2,000 daily flights by the middle of February, 2020.

With East Asian operations being the first to be impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, carriers in the region were forced to heavily suspend flights. With the likes of Air China, China Eastern, and Cathay Pacific holding considerable numbers of this jet, the type was heavily grounded early on.

There was a steady decline across the spectrum leading into March. Then, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th, 2020, A340, A350, A380, 767, 777, and 787 activity all slumped with the A330.

Quadjet troubles

Interestingly, the 747 has seen vastly different patterns compared with its counterparts. There was a sharp decline at the end of January, going from nearly 800 daily flights to under 600. However, business picked up during February before a slow decrease to approximately 600 daily flights for most of the summer.

The most significant drop in activity for the Queen of the skies has been this year. The type performed only 490 flights on January 1st, 2021 and only 453 on February 16th, 2021. Nonetheless, operations picked up before the end of that month.

As expected, the aircraft that has flown the least is the Airbus A380. With only 246 units delivered, the superjumbo already sees far less activity compared with its competitors. Moreover, airlines have been phasing out the plane in favor of more modern, efficient options. So, only a handful of A380s have been flying over the last year.

Emirates Airbus A380 Lands Into Sydney, Australia
The Airbus A380 was flying up to over 160 times a day in January 2020, but there were periods later on in the year where it only flew around once a day. Photo: Getty Images.

Like its quadjet sibling, the A340 has also only seen minimal activity, with less than 60 flights a day every day since the start of the pandemic. This is a drop from up to over 170 daily flights in January.

Quadjets were already on their way out of the holdings of several airlines. Nevertheless, the pandemic catalyzed the retirement of many units. For instance, Air France announced the retirement of its nine remaining Airbus A380 aircraft in May 2020. Moreover, Qantas retired its last Boeing 747 aircraft in the summer. Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic permanently grounded both its 747s and A340s last year.

These examples are just some of the many phasing outs of inefficient aircraft. Ultimately, airlines now have an extra incentive to shave costs amid uncertainties within the market.

UNICEF, COVID-19 Vaccine, Delivery
Cargo has been a saving grace for certain widebodies, especially quadjets, with shipping operations relying heavily on these behemoths and freight services on the rise. Photo: Getty Images

Twinjet competition

A350 activity appears low compared with its twinjet rivals, but this is largely because only 422 of them have been built. This aircraft is Airbus’ current flagship, and it has been touted to be lead several airlines in the new climate.

So, looking across the figures, which aircraft flew the most over the course of the pandemic up until the end of February? This aircraft is the 777. Initially rivaling the A330 as the top dog at the start of 2020, it pulled back following the industry-wide slump in the middle of March to compete against the 767 for the rest of the spring.

Boeing 767-400ER Delta
The 767 managed to perform relatively well and gave the 777 a run for its money. Photo: Delta Air Lines

When the summer arrived, the 777 pulled clear, performing approximately 1,500 daily flights. There was a post-pandemic peak on December 18th, with 1,794 flights conducted, before a slight slump at the turn of the year amid another wave of worldwide travel restrictions. Regardless, it pulled back to hit its 1,500 approximate daily average again.

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Overall, the 777 may continue to be a dominator for the remainder of the decade. The versatile twinjet has been the go-to choice for numerous airlines for over a quarter of a century. There have been over 1,600 units produced until now. Additionally, the series will be joined by the highly-anticipated 777X in a few years.

British Airways Boeing 777 landing at Heathrow
The Boeing 777 can be spotted in the livery of most major long-haul carriers, so while one airline was mostly grounded due to restrictions, an operator in another region would have been active with the jet. Photo: Getty Images

A whole new climate

Altogether, it’s not a surprise that the 777 flew the most out of the widebodies. With an abundance of aircraft with airlines all across the continents, it found a way to keep active. Moreover, modern twinjets such as the A350 and 787 haven’t caught up in terms of production numbers. So, they would naturally be conducting fewer flights than the veteran.

What are your thoughts about the widebodies that flew the most during the pandemic? Are there any surprises when looking at this data? Let us know what you think of the situation in the comment section.