Pandemic Response Reshapes Asia-Pacific Airline Fleets
Asia-Pacific airlines are slowly rebuilding widebody and narrowbody fleets that were decimated by the COVID-19 crisis. Many will look significantly different, however, as the pandemic has transformed the makeup of operating fleets and longer-term aircraft strategies.
The region’s airlines have accelerated the retirement of older types due to the pandemic, catalyzing the shift to newer, more efficient aircraft. Orderbooks have been shaken up as carriers readjust to changed market expectations. And now new orders are starting to emerge, with airlines looking ahead to the next phase of their development.
- Some widebody types are being phased out more quickly
- Orders have been restructured to reflect new environment
Asia-Pacific operating fleet totals have been gradually rising through late 2021 and early 2022. The number of active narrowbodies and widebodies in the region are each reaching their highest levels since the pandemic began in early 2020, and the corresponding numbers of stored aircraft are at their lowest levels.
In-service aircraft numbers reached a relative peak in December 2020, before another dip around the middle of 2021. There is optimism that the latest slow climb will be sustained, and data for January so far shows the trend continuing.
Aircraft from mainland China are not included in the Asia-Pacific category for the purposes of this analysis, as China’s fleet totals did not shift significantly due to the pandemic.
There were 2,173 narrowbodies in service in the Asia-Pacific region in December, with 476 in storage, according to the Aviation Week Intelligence Network’s Commercial Aviation Fleet Discovery database. The in-service number includes those that are parked or in reserve for the short term.
The December in-service total for narrowbodies is significantly less than the figure of 2,724 from December 2019, when there were 81 in storage.
There is also a much lower proportion of the fleet currently operational. About 82% of Asia-Pacific narrowbodies were in service in December, with the remainder in storage. This compares with a 97% in-service rate two years earlier.
At the low point for narrowbodies in May 2020, just 63% of the fleet was in service. During the next dip in July 2021, 70.3% of the aircraft in this category were operating.
Widebody use has also been severely affected during the pandemic, particularly as they are often used on the type of international routes that have been hardest hit by border restrictions.
In December, there were 1,096 widebodies in service in the Asia-Pacific region, compared with 346 in storage. There were 1,489 aircraft in service and 53 in storage during the same month in 2019.
The low point for widebodies was reached in March 2021 with 64% in service. This figure had risen to 76% by December 2021, although the improvement of the in-service ratio during the second half of 2021 was slower than for narrowbodies.
The Asia-Pacific region has trailed most other parts of the world in terms of returning aircraft to service. In December, the proportion of the global aircraft fleet in service was 90.6% for narrowbodies and 85.2% for widebodies—both significantly higher than the Asia-Pacific percentages for the same month.
Subtracting temporarily parked aircraft—a subset of the in-service total—offers further insight into the state of the Asia-Pacific fleet recovery. As of Jan. 19, there were 917 widebodies active in the region, 190 parked or in reserve, and 347 stored. So this brings the active share of the total fleet down to 63%. Using the same process gives an active percentage of 68% for narrowbodies.
Some aircraft types have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Good examples of this are the largest passenger aircraft—Airbus A380s and Boeing 747s.
There were 60 A380s in service in the Asia-Pacific region in December 2019. By mid-January 2021, there were 13 in service and 47 in storage, and the in-service total included six parked or in reserve. Four of the seven active aircraft are operated by Singapore Airlines (SIA).
The iconic 747 has also become more scarce. There were 31 passenger 747s still in service in the Asia-Pacific region in December 2019. Two years later, there are four in service, of which only two are actually active rather than parked. These two are the newer 747-8 version, operated by Korean Air. Carriers such as Qantas decided to accelerate the retirement of their 747s.
Generally, older widebody types have been the most likely to be put into long-term storage. There were 110 Boeing 777-200 variants in service in the Asia-Pacific region before the pandemic. However, there are just 15 of the passenger versions active now, with another five parked and 67 stored.
For the broader 777 family, 158—or less than half—of the passenger versions in the region are active, with 50 parked or in reserve and 151 stored. For Airbus A330s, 172 of the 327 are active.
In contrast, newer widebody types have returned to service far more quickly. There are 157 Airbus A350s active, compared with 25 parked or stored, and 244 Boeing 787s active versus 51 parked or stored. Airlines are more inclined to use their newer and more efficient aircraft before bringing older types out of mothballs.
Many of the aircraft in storage will not be returned to service by their current owners. Malaysia Airlines has decided to phase out and attempt to sell all six of its A380s. Qantas, SIA and Thai Airways also intend to cut down their A380 fleets.
In another example, Air New Zealand announced last year that its stored 777-200ERs will not return to service.
Several Asia-Pacific carriers opted to accelerate retirement plans for older widebodies as a result of the pandemic. Both of Japan’s major airlines have done this, phasing out many of their 777s earlier than they had previously planned.
All Nippon Airways retired 22 of its 777s in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021. Japan Airlines (JAL) has phased out all 13 of the 777-200s and -300s that were used on domestic routes before the pandemic, and has retired six of its 11 777-200ERs.
JAL will continue to operate 13 777-300ERs on international routes, and they will eventually be replaced by the A350-1000s the carrier has on order.
Most airlines have reached deals to push back planned deliveries to varying degrees. An exception to this is Indian low-cost carrier IndiGo, which has continued to take narrowbody deliveries as scheduled.
In some cases carriers have canceled or reduced their orders instead of merely delaying them.
Malaysia-based AirAsia X had 78 A330neos and 30 A321XLRs on order before the pandemic. However, the carrier reached an agreement with Airbus last year to cut the order to 15 A330neos and 20 A321XLRs. The change is significant for the A330neo program, as AirAsia X was the largest airline customer for this model.
Virgin Australia is another example of an airline that has scaled back its aircraft orders while restructuring through the courts, cutting its Boeing 737 MAX orders by almost half.
The Australian carrier previously had 25 of the 737-10 version due from July 2021 and 23 of the -8 version due from 2025. Under the revised agreement, it will only take the 25 737-10s, with first delivery pushed back to mid-2023.
SIA has also restructured part of its orderbook. The airline reached a deal with Airbus in December to cut orders for 15 A320neos and two A350-900s, while also adding orders for seven A350F freighters with options for another five. SIA is expected to be the first airline to operate the A350F when deliveries begin in late 2025.
Despite the bleak demand environment, there are some airlines that have placed significant passenger aircraft orders or are preparing to do so. These airlines are expecting to secure advantageous deals as manufacturers chase relatively scarce opportunities.
In December 2021, Qantas selected Airbus to replace its current narrowbody fleet. The carrier intends to buy up to 134 aircraft from the A320neo and A220 families, comprising 40 firm orders and 94 purchase rights.
The initial 40 aircraft will be split evenly between A321XLRs and A220s. The order is expected to be finalized by midyear, subject to board approval, and deliveries are due to begin in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2023. The purchase rights would be converted in stages, with deliveries spread out over more than 10 years.
Indian startup low-cost carrier (LCC) Akasa Air placed an order for 72 737 MAXs during the Dubai Airshow in November. The order includes two variants, the 737-8 and the higher capacity 737-8-200.
Akasa intends to begin operations around the middle of this year. The carrier is set to receive 18 aircraft by the end of March 2023, and then plans to add another 14-16 aircraft every 12 months, CEO Vinay Dube said during a televised interview on business news channel ET Now.
Other startups or relaunched airlines may also place orders for narrowbody aircraft. These include Hong Kong-based Greater Bay Airlines, which intends to begin operations this year, and India’s Jet Airways, which plans to resume services after an extended hiatus.
Meanwhile, some Asia-Pacific airlines are introducing new types of aircraft to extend their capabilities or take advantage of opportunities that have arisen during the pandemic. Australian turboprop operator Regional Express has added six 737s to serve domestic trunk routes, and LCC VietJet plans to lease three A330s to launch long-haul services.