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Birds of a Feather: The Aircraft Lost to COVID-19 in 2020 Part 2
To not mince words about the commercial aviation industry when talking about the last year, but 2020 sucked. The global force for moving passengers was grounded with the rapid spread of COVID-19 as borders closed, demand fell and airlines looked to make the most of the disaster at hand. Months later with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines beginning to move in heavy shipments to show the light at the end of the tunnel, some new or legendary aircraft will not be joining the recovery effort. With that in mind let us recap the end of an era for aviation history. The retired Boeing 747s, Boeing 767s, and Airbus A340s can be read in part 1.
By far the most unique aircraft lost in the transition from pre-COVID to the post-COVID fleet is that of Air Transat. The aircraft, the Airbus A310, was slowly reaching the end of its service life with the leisure-based Canadian brand. The airline operated a handful of low-capacity, high value, long-distance routes with the fleeting Airbus product. The 250-seat aircraft was due to be replaced by the 199-seat Airbus A321LRs but had not been given final flight orders before COVID-19 ravaged North America. As a result of the downturn, Air Transat would phase out the Airbus A310 on March 31, 2020.
For June, the most notable and surprising call was made by Air France when the airline announced that the largest commercial aircraft type in the fleet, the Airbus A380, would be removed with immediate effect. The final operations on June 26, operating as AF380, offered Air France crew once final ride around France before the aircraft would leave for good. The ten-year-old fleet was already coming under fire as airlines had noticed the inflexibility and unsustainability of the large jet, but the sudden retirement was news for the industry. Air France was not the only carrier to sign off on operating the aircraft, as leasing company HiFly would follow suit in December and part ways with their sole A380 as the aircraft was not sustainable for the Maltese branch of the Portuguese carrier.
— Air France (@airfrance) June 26, 2020
Across the pond, American Airlines said farewell to its fleet of Airbus A330. Both the A330-200 and A330-300 were inherited via a merger with US Airways in 2015. The 258-seat and 291-seat aircraft types were some of the oldest widebodies in the fleet. And being the lone widebody Airbus model in a Boeing dominated fleet, the removal of the French-product was near confirmed when fleet consolidation was called upon.
Despite delaying the final departure date of Airbus A319, Frontier’s final four Airbus A319s would meet their destined fate in Roswell in March 30, 2020 when the airline was forced to react to COVID-19. The four 150-seat aircraft were due to be handed over to American Airlines, but delays in acceptance allowed Frontier additional time to utilize the aircraft. All four aircraft moved to Roswell for storage and an undisclosed fate, with the four aircraft serving the low-cost Denver-based airline since as dated as 2002. At its peak, the airline operated 53 Airbus A319s, but newer Airbus A320neos and A321s have pushed the older European product to new operators.
One of the shortest-lived stories about lost potential comes from Africa, where South African Airways had made strides to secure abandoned Hainan Airlines Airbus A350s to overhaul and potentially stabilize its long-haul routes. The airline took hold of four Airbus A350s in November 2019 and began service the following month. However, the downturn of travel saw South African withdraw the entire fleet by April as the airline would lapse into bankruptcy just a few weeks later, watching the A350s leave in what could have been a potential lifesaver for the airline’s loss heavy routes when operated under older Airbus A330s and A340s. Two A350s have since found new life with Air Mauritius who was also looking to replace Airbus A340s.
The collapse of air travel has not been kind to the larger Embraer E-Jets that some airlines saw as outliers in their fleets, with Air Canada E190 being the biggest mover of the aircraft. The airline finalized the retirement of its one 45-aircraft strong fleet of E190s on May 31 as the aircraft was slated to be replaced with Airbus A220s. The airline had 10 aircraft in its fleet by May, with the remainder being removed in the years leading up to the pandemic. Configured in nine first-class and 88 economy class seats, the E190 was the smallest aircraft to not bear the ‘Air Canada Express’ title.
South of the border, American had also seen the Brazilian jet as the oddball as fleet and sub fleet consolidation was being planned at the back end of the previous decade. The E190s were similar to the Airbus A330s, the E190s were onboarded through the US Airways merger and similar to Air Canada were part of the mainline fleet. Configured for 11 first-class and 88 economy seats, the E190 fleet would reach 20 aircraft strong focusing on east coast routes. The aircraft type was given a prolonged life after the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX through at least the end of 2020 but the loss of demand cemented the retirement date to the end of April.
Finally, the retirement of the Embraer E175 was successfully performed by EgyptAir’s subsidiary EgyptAir Express in 2020. As part of a corporate restructuring plan for the struggling North African carrier, the regional arm of the airline would be removed when a planned fleet transition from E175s to Airbus A220s would occur. The airline announced a retirement plan of one E175 per month, finishing operations in June 2020. The pandemic would push that date for the final few regional jets to March, with EgyptAir Express dissolving upon completion. The airline now operates 12 A220s, all of which use the house colors for the airline.
Other Notable Retirements
For Delta fleet consolidation was the removal of multiple notable aircraft types, including the 737-700, 777-200, MD-88, and MD-90. The most notable was the McDonnell-Douglas products, which were originally planned to last until the mid-2020s before the outbreak of coronavirus saw the fleet type retired in June. Topping at 229 aircraft between the MD-88 and MD-90 combined, Delta’s fleet had slowly been removed as Boeing 737s and 717s and Airbus family models began to take over the route map. The Boeing 777-200s were the next to go, with the $100 million retrofits of the 777s cabin being written off as sunk cost as the aircraft type was only 18 strong in the fleet. Delta gave the aircraft one final domestic stint from New York to Los Angeles as DL8777 on October 31st before moving the last 777 to Victorville, California for storage. Finally, the quiet disposal of the 737-700s were not groundbreaking news but was noteworthy. The airline had used the aircraft for ‘hot, humid, and high’ routes in Central and South America. The aircraft type would also make seasonal jumps to smaller destinations like Key West when demand called for additional seats. The aircraft would be parked in Kansas City until the call was made to make the jet redundant.
— Delta News Hub (@DeltaNewsHub) June 1, 2020
The other heavy fleet purge came from American. As noted earlier, the Boeing 767, Embraer E190 and Airbus A330s were sunset from service but the Boeing 757-200 and Bombardier CRJ-200 were sunset as well. The Boeing 757s had lingered as the airline was utilizing them for longer fights to smaller markets, including the non-Oahu Hawaiian Islands and European routes to Keflavik, Iceland and Manchester. Between US Airways and American over 177 Boeing 757s wore one of the two schemes, with a mixed cabin type depending on the initial operator. The 757s were ejected from the AA fleet at the same time of the Boeing 767s.
American’s regional arm, PSA Airlines, was also informed to shrink the fleet of Bombardier CRJ-200s from 19 to zero as the airline wanted a more unified operation. The CRJ-200s were operated by numerous airlines in the US Airways Express and American Eagle system, including SkyWest, Air Wisconsin and PSA Airlines. The other operators had already moved on to different contracts, leaving PSA the lone operator of the airplane in the American fleet entering 2020. N213PS would operate the final flight on December 8th as it ventured across the United States from Dayton, Ohio to its final resting point in Tucson, Arizona.
Similar to other aircraft mentioned, the retirement of LOT Polish Airlines’ final Boeing 737-400 would take place in March as the environment across Europe was drastically changing. Operating one final flight between Warsaw and Krakow on March 10, Boeing 737-400 SP-LLG officially brought an end to Boeing 737 Classic operations by the Polish flag carrier. LOT peaked at 10 of the largest Classic design, being the second largest 737 fleet for the airline after the Boeing 737-500. The airline will still have Boeing 737s going forward with both the Boeing 737-800 and 737 MAX 8 in operation but will only account for 20 airframes total once deliveries are completed.
Air Baltic entered a new era for Baltic transportation as the airline would rush the completion of its fleet overhaul as COVID-19 changed the way airlines operated. For airBaltic, the carrier had been in the process of replacing Bombardier Q400s and Boeing 737-300s with Airbus A220-300s. Realizing that the 737s and Q400s were on the way out, the flag carrier of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had removed the aircraft types from operation in May, reducing the airline to just a fleet of 25 A220s as a way to continue to remove complexity and improve financial stability in the airline. The final Boeing 737-300 left Riga, Latvia on December 17th for a flight to the Czech Republic for a future with Magnetic MRO.
After nearly two decades of operations in our fleet, we are saying goodbye to Boeing 737 aircraft. We thank the Boeing fleet for the journey full of incredible milestones and 17 outstanding years of connecting passengers all across @airBaltic network. pic.twitter.com/a6kDeouDBd
— airBaltic (@airBaltic) December 17, 2020
Not Over Yet
While this list is expansive, this is not all-encompassing as there are some airlines and airplanes that were not included in-depth. This can include full airline collapses like Air Italy and FlyBe and specific regional airline retirements. 2020 has been a year of change for airlines large and small and the skies will certainly not be the same after this year.
And while 2020 was rough, the story is not finished on which aircraft may not survive the pandemic. As airlines continue to restructure and plan ahead, there are some that might have decisions to make. The Lufthansa Group has already hinted that heavy aircraft could still be disposed of, including the German-based Airbus A380 and Austrian operated Boeing 777s and 767s. Meanwhile, other airlines have fallen into financial distress. Interjet has removed most of its fleet of Airbus A320s and spent part of 2020 flying as just a Sukhoi Superjet airline while Virgin Australia as suspended Boeing 777-300 and Airbus A330 operations since shifting hands to Bain Capital.
Both these airlines hope to return to some sort of relevance post-pandemic but whether these aircraft returns are uncertain. Finally, the acceleration of other aircraft may continue to be seen. Both Japanese carriers Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways have talked about accelerating the retirement of the Boeing 777-200 from domestic markets, with JAL citing specifically a 2023 departure. However, with no timetable or notice of when demand will stabilize even after distributing a vaccine, these dates could fluctuate or move forward.
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