What do JetBlue Airways and Canada’s Transat have in common? Both are at the mercy of Airbus where aircraft delivery delays, coupled with similar issues at competitor Boeing, are forcing airlines to limit schedules and slowing the global aviation recovery.
Cowen & Co. analyst Helane Becker wrote earlier in September that U.S. airline capacity in the fourth quarter compared to 2019 could fall below the level reached in the third quarter. U.S. carriers flew about 93 percent of what it flew three years ago in September quarter. Aircraft delivery delays are a big constraint, as well as the well documented staffing issues that the U.S. industry faces.
“Capacity growth is limited by aircraft and pilot availability,” Becker wrote in a September 8 report. “Although carriers would like to reach pre-pandemic levels of capacity, that is unlikely given current constraints.”
Air travel demand, as opposed to airline capacity, is nearly back at pre-pandemic levels. Over the U.S. Labor Day holiday weekend, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 3 percent more people than it did over the same five-day period in 2019. And airlines have reported continued strong demand into the fall and winter.
With new aircraft arriving late and travel demand back, airlines are getting creative to fly their schedules. The late arrival of new A321LR aircraft have forced New York-based JetBlue to operate a plane designed for its U.S. domestic routes on select flights to London for nearly two weeks in September, Diio by Cirium schedules show. The carrier’s A321LRs are specially outfitted for the longer flights to London from Boston and New York with more Mint premium seats and, among other things, ovens in all cabins to heat passenger meals. JetBlue will briefly operate an A321neo to London Gatwick from Boston; the aircraft typically operates domestic Mint flights.
And at Montreal-based Transat, CEO Annick Guérard said September 8 that the five A321LRs it is scheduled to take by January 2024 will arrive “maybe two or three months” late. While that may not sound like a lot, that could translate to real lost dollars and cents for Transat if all or some the three aircraft that are expected in time for the peak 2023 summer season arrive during or after that period. The airline is “negotiating” with Airbus over the expected delays that could see it fly less next year than hoped.
These are just two examples of the aircraft production issues plaguing global planemakers, Airbus and Boeing. The situation has been building for some time amid global supply chain, staffing, and other issues. All of which has occurred as the airframers have promised to make ever more aircraft deliveries, with Airbus promising 65 A320neo family aircraft a month from the middle of 2023.
The issue “today is the overaggressive, the overambitious production rate projections that Airbus and Boeing have made in the last couple of years … particularly on single-aisle aircraft,” Air Lease Corp. Executive Chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy said at a Deutsche Bank conference on September 7. He added that there are shortages and backlogs of roughly 30 components, including “power plants, avionics, forgings, [and] titanium,” that are critical for new aircraft.
The challenges getting new aircraft, however, have benefitted ALC and other lessors as well as hurt them. “We keep extending leases,” Udvar-Hazy said referring to airlines keeping older planes in their fleets until new equipment can arrive.
Despite the production delays, airlines keep ordering new aircraft. Just this summer, Delta Air Lines signed for up to 130 737 Maxes; the Chinese big 3 — Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern — ordered nearly 300 A320neo family jets; and EasyJet firmed orders for 56 A320neos.
Neither Airbus nor Boeing were immediately available to comment on production rates or delivery delays.