Delta Air Lines has quietly introduced the first of 33 used Boeing 737s that it recently bought. The move comes amid an effort to fully recover its schedules from the pandemic despite the U.S. pilot shortage limiting the return of many regional flights.
The first of the fleet of 737-900ERs, all of which were formerly operated by Indonesian airline Lion Air, entered service between Atlanta and Panama City, Fla., on November 18, according to FlightRadar24. Delta plans to introduce another five by the end of December, and the rest of the planes monthly through October 2023. The first aircraft in operation is registered N951DX.
But the 737s are entering service before they are fully refit to the Atlanta-based carrier’s specifications, Delta told flight attendants recently in a memo viewed by Airline Weekly. All of the aircraft will feature just 12 first class seats, compared to 20 in Delta’s standard layout, and amenities like inflight wi-fi and entertainment are limited to just certain aircraft. Due to these product differences the 737s will only operate on 18 routes of 500 miles or less from the airline’s Atlanta hub for the time being.
Wi-fi and inflight entertainment will be fully operational on the aircraft by the spring, but reconfiguring the aircraft in Delta’s layout will not begin until 2024.
The 737-900ERs are “needed quickly to support our operation,” Delta told staff.
The rapid introduction comes as U.S. carriers, including Delta, face staffing issues that have limited their recovery. The pilot shortage in particular has forced many regional airlines to temporarily park planes, particularly smaller 50-seat models, as they work to rebuild their cockpit crew ranks. But staffing issues broadly have forced many airlines, from Alaska to JetBlue and Delta, to fly less than they otherwise would have this year.
“We don’t think it will be fully restored until probably 2024, 2025 at the earliest,” Delta President Glen Hauenstein said of regional capacity in October. He added that the airline’s fleet of small mainline narrowbodies, particularly the Airbus A220 and Boeing 717, would help Delta to fully restore its network by next summer even with fewer regional aircraft.
And while Delta did not mention pilots or regional capacity in its memos to staff, if its A220s and 717s are flying routes normally the domain of regional jets, like the Embraer E175, then it would need more Airbus A320s and 737s — the next size up in its fleet cascade — to fill in on markets where those smaller jets previously flew. And, given the delivery delays facing new Airbus aircraft that Delta has on order, the used 737-900ERs are the airline’s only viable alternative to quickly boost its fleet count.
“We make decisions about fleet induction and aircraft deployment based on a variety of factors but what’s most important is that we have flights when and where our customers want to travel,” an airline spokesperson said. The introduction of the used 737-900ERs, they said, was “going well.”
Delta had 50 A220-300s and 137 A321neos on order from Airbus at the end of September, according to its latest fleet plan. Executives, while acknowledging that there are delays, has not said how many of the airline’s deliveries are late.
“Every plane last year and this year is delayed,” Air Lease Corp. Executive Chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy said on November 16. Airbus A321neos, for which Delta has the most orders, are averaging six to seven months late, Hazy added.
Delta also has an order for 100 737-10s from Boeing. However, the delivery timeline is uncertain pending U.S. Federal Aviation Administration certification of the aircraft.
The airline first unveiled the deal for 29 former Lion Air 737-900ERs from lessor Castlelake, along with seven used Latam Airlines Airbus A350s, in 2021. Both deals were billed as part of its fleet renewal plan, and would help backfill some of the capacity Delta removed during the pandemic but at much lower capital costs than new Airbus or Boeing models. The carrier retired its Boeing 737-700 and 777, and McDonnell Douglas MD-88 and MD-90 fleets. Delta acquired four more used 737-900ERs in the second quarter.
Delta placed its first former Latam A350 in passenger operations in June.