Daily Memo: New Fleet Forecast Underscores Pandemic’s Reach

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Credit: ACI World

Airline fleet-planning is taking a back seat to planning for survival amid the largest demand downturn in commercial aviation history.

Still, with the worst of the slump seemingly in the past and some general consensus forming about near-term traffic trends, the global fleet’s revamped look is slowly coming into focus.

The active global air transport fleet is expected to be 10% smaller at the end of 2020 compared to a year earlier, thanks to a blend of retirements, temporary storage, and a precipitous drop in deliveries, the latest Aviation Week forecast data show. Looking further ahead, lower demand coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic will reduce new-aircraft deliveries 30% in the decade ahead compared to pre-downturn projections.

Global passenger and cargo carriers will have 27,300 aircraft in service on Dec. 31, down from 30,500 at the start of the year, the revised figures show. The net decline of 3,200 aircraft includes a projected 720 retirements, or 2.4% of the active fleet. 

Deliveries this year are projected to total just 895. The timing of Boeing 737 MAX return-to-service approvals could affect this number, as the manufacturer has more than 450 built MAXs sitting in storage that it would very much like to hand over to customers. Assuming regulators do not start granting MAX approvals much before late in the year, however, an aggregate delivery total of fewer than 1,000 new aircraft is a strong possibility. It would mark only the tenth time in the last three decades that air transport manufacturers combined to hand over fewer than 1,000 aircraft in a calendar year, and the first since 2006. The 2019 total, held down by the MAX delivery halt that kept some 400 aircraft from entering service, was 1,425.

The drop in deliveries and jump in both retirements and temporary removals will leave the year-end 2020 global fleet of aircraft certified for 19 or more seats on par with 2015’s fleet size, underscoring the pandemic’s ramifications on global air traffic demand.

While retirements are on the rise, many stored aircraft are expected to re-join fleets to support demand recovery. Aviation Week projects 2,100 aircraft returning from long-term storage by 2023.

The most recent IATA projections have global airline traffic staying below 2019 levels through at least 2023. Traffic, as measured in revenue passenger kilometers, will be off 54% in 2020, IATA projects. 

Following 2020’s unprecedented decline—April appeared to be the low point for global traffic, though markets hit earlier by the COVID-19 pandemic, notably China, saw their troughs several months before—traffic is expected to slowly come back. Domestic and regional demand will out-pace international traffic, largely due to lost momentum following travel restrictions. Leisure traffic is also expected to out-pace business flying for a while—a trend that is evident in the recovery to date.

The global fleet is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.4% from 2021-2030, resulting in a fleet of 38,300 aircraft, the forecast says. New deliveries will total 16,200 during the decade—about 30% lower than pre-pandemic estimates. 

Widebody deliveries will total about 2,500 during the 10-year stretch, which is 42% below the pre-pandemic forecast, reflecting the slower expected return of long-haul demand. Narrowbody deliveries will top 11,500—a 28% decline compared to pre-pandemic calculations. Regional jets, already on the decline thanks largely to upgauging trends, are projected to account for 1,150 deliveries, or 38% lower than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Airlines will permanently retire nearly 9,200 aircraft during the decade, the forecast shows. Calendar-year peaks are projected to come in 2028 and 2029, with each year expected to see more than 1,000 retirements. 

The average of 920 retirements per year during the coming decade is a notable jump over recent figures. Aviation Week data shows that annual retirements from 2015 through 2019 averaged 657, before climbing to a projected 720 in 2020, in part due to the pandemic’s fallout.

Among the many unknowns: how airlines will leverage their sudden abundance of spare capacity. Engines with green time will be tapped to fly in an effort to push off expensive full overhauls. OEM-alternative parts supplier Heico reports detecting clear trends where high-volume customers are ordering fewer parts than current flying activity suggests they need. This could be a sign that pre-pandemic parts inventories were more stocked than some thought. Or, it may be evidence of airlines using their plethora of available aircraft in creative ways to avoid spending money on maintenance for as long as possible.

Among the abundance of unknowns, there is one certainty: global airline fleet trends are changing rapidly, and the fallout will be evident for years.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.