COVID 19: US major airlines operating fleets dive in Mar-2020


In the span of a month the COVID-19 coronavirus has been declared a pandemic, borders have been closed, and air travel worldwide has nearly come to a standstill. 

Airlines around the globe are cutting capacity to match near zero demand, and their capacity projections almost change on a daily basis against the backdrop of a growing consensus that it will take at least two years for demand to reach 2019 and early 2020 levels. 

Global operators are also slashing their operating fleets, including the largest US operators, which have now grounded unprecedented numbers of aircraft in a stunningly short period of time.

Data compiled by CAPA shows that the operating fleets of American, Delta and United are below half of where they were at the start of 2020, with the most drastic reductions taking place in late Mar-2020. And there will be more to come.


  • US airlines continue to rack up millions of losses on a daily basis as much of the country remains essentially quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • The country’s largest airlines have engaged in a major pull-down of their fleets (in late Mar-2020) as travel restrictions and travel advisories have severely diminished demand. 
  • Southwest’s fleet cuts are less intense, but could continue to grow as the airline slashes its schedule for Jun-2020. 

COVID-19 triggers an unbelievable cash burn rate at US airlines 

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been publishing daily travel checkpoint numbers to show the massive decline in demand since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

For 6-Apr-2020 there were 108,310 individuals screened versus 2,384,091 in the year prior. The 2019 numbers reflect international travellers, and international travel to and from the US has essentially been shut down. Between 3-Mar-2020 and 6-Apr-2020 screenings fell from 2,280,522 to 108,310. 

US airlines are slashing capacity at a dizzying pace and detailing the painful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Delta has stated that it is burning through approximately USD60 million per day, and United has stated that it lost USD100 million a day in Mar-2020. 

It seems those operators are constantly updating their capacity guidance; at this point, Delta is cutting system capacity by 80%, and United has stated that its system capacity will fall by 68% in Apr-2020. 

See related report: COVID-19: US airlines face complexity in cutting capacity 

Late Mar-2020 marked a major turning point for US airline fleet reductions 

The US major airlines have been outlining plans to cut their operating fleets drastically, with Delta Air Lines tabling plans to ground 600 aircraft, and American has also stated its intent to ground hundreds of aircraft. 

An analysis by CAPA shows that most of the fleet flux at American, Delta and United occurred in late Mar-2020 as those companies worked to 'rightsize' their operations in light of precipitous drops in demand.

According to CAPA’s Fleet Database, as of early Jan-2020, Delta Air Lines had an operating fleet of 998 aircraft, but as of 31-Mar-2020, the airline had 464 aircraft in service. By that time, the airline’s aircraft in service as a percentage of its operating fleet had fallen to 46%. 

Delta Air Lines: percentage of aircraft in service as a total of operating fleet, early 2020 to 31-Mar-2020

American’s fleet trajectory has a similar pattern.

At the start of 2020, American's active fleet was 993 aircraft. But by 31-Mar-2020 the airline was operating 459 aircraft, and its aircraft in service as a percentage of its operating fleet had fallen to 46%.

American Airlines: percentage of aircraft in service as a total of operating fleet, early 2020 to 31-Mar-2020

United’s operating fleet was 811 at the beginning of Jan-2020, but fell to 308 at the end of Mar-2020.

United's aircraft in service as a percentage of total operating fleet had fallen to 38%. 

United Airlines: percentage of aircraft in service as a total of operating fleet, early 2020 to 31-Mar-2020

It is a stunning grounding of aircraft, and the draw-down occurred abruptly in late Mar-2020 as various international travel bans took effect and numerous US states issued 'stay at home' orders.

More recently, airlines have made significant reductions into and out of the New York City region as that area has the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the US

Southwest Airlines takes a more gradual approach to its fleet during COVID-19 outbreak

Southwest Airlines’ fleet changes are somewhat different, given that its operations are weighted towards domestic service.

Southwest's operating fleet at the start of Jan-2020 was 762, and the number of aircraft the airline had in operation at the end of Mar-2020 was 535. Its fleet in service at the end of Mar-2020 as a percentage of its total operating fleet was 70%, versus 77% on 29-Jan-2020. 

Southwest Airlines: percentage of aircraft in service as a total of operating fleet, early 2020 to 31-Mar-2020

Despite having a smaller number of aircraft out of service, Southwest executives have been vocal about the devastating effects of COVID-19. The company’s CEO Gary Kelly has stated that Southwest’s load factors are “at levels we’ve never seen”, and that the company is losing money on every single flight. 

The airline’s most recent capacity forecast entails cutting 2,000 flights per day for most of Jun-2020, as the airline stated that “overall demand for travel remains fluid during this overall pandemic”. 

Southwest plans to maintain passenger service to every city it serves, which, as of early-Apr-2020, was 88 nonstop destinations in the US. The airline is funnelling some passengers through connecting cities and is also operating cargo flights to garner some revenue and make use of a portion of its fleet. 

See related report: COVID 19: Air cargo suddenly attractive for US airlines 

But even as Southwest attempts to maintain some level of network integrity as demand continues to fall, the reality is that the airline may need to park more aircraft in the coming weeks to accommodate its latest cuts for Jun-2020, which is a reduction of approximately 50% in its flights year-on-year. 

Even with those cuts, Southwest also plans to add some leisure destinations back into its network in Jun-2020, according the Dallas Morning News., including service from Denver and Baltimore to Cancún and from Denver to Los Cabos in early Jun-2020.

It will be interesting to see if demand will materialise for those services. The airline could be betting on some pent-up desire to travel once various stay at home orders expire. 

US airlines pull down huge portions of their fleets in less than a month 

There’s so much fluidity surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic as the US works to combat the virus, and the country’s airlines are constantly making changes as demand for travel continues to dwindle to historic levels. 

Among the country’s largest airlines, the total of inactive aircraft has fallen solidly in less than a month, and more aircraft could become idle – US COVID-19 cases are scheduled to peak in the coming days. 

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