American Airlines expects full fleet back this spring after major increase in bookings

  • An American Airlines agent helps a customer check their baggage in Terminal A at DFW International Airport on Sept. 23, 2020. A major increase in bookings has the company optimistic about returning its full fleet to the air during the second quarter. (Photo/Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

American Airlines expects to “reactivate most of its aircraft in the second quarter” after seeing a major increase in bookings that has brought business back to near pre-pandemic levels.

Fort Worth-based American, which lost more than $8.9 billion last year as the air travel industry reeled from the COVID-19 pandemic, gave a slightly more positive outlook for the spring quarter in a regulatory filing March 29. It said developments with the coronavirus have prompted customers to start looking to travel again.

“However, as infection and hospitalization rates have materially declined and vaccine distribution has increased during the quarter, the company has experienced recent strength in domestic and short-haul international bookings,” the filing said. “As of March 26, the company’s seven-day moving average of its net bookings is approximately 90 percent of the level experienced in 2019, with a domestic load factor of approximately 80 percent during that same period.”

American said it expects the bookings trend “to continue through the end of the first quarter and into the second quarter.”

Airlines have reported a string of good news in recent weeks. Airlines, including American and Dallas-based Southwest, have reported that ticket purchases started picking up in mid-February.

A pandemic record of 1.5 million passengers went through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on March 28, adding to the string of million-plus passenger days during March after months of stagnation in passenger traffic. Passenger traffic has topped 1 million for 18 straight days.

But positive developments with COVID-19 vaccine distribution and a drop from peak infections in January have prompted people to start flying again, or at least looking to fly later this year. There is also the fatigue from a global health pandemic that is more than a year old.

Chicago-based United Airlines even said earlier this month that it could stop daily losses by the end of March if booking trends continue.

American was still burning through about $30 million a day at the end of 2020.

Load factor is a measure of how full planes are. A load factor of about 80 percent means that planes are nearly a full as they were in pre-pandemic times, although the airline is only flying about 60 percent as many flights as it did before COVID-19.

This summer could be a major test as airlines ramp-up schedules. But the air travel industry is still missing major segments of flyers that still haven’t returned, namely international passengers and business passengers.

“We’re seeing a nice uptake of like in the short-haul international, but we haven’t seen much of yet as domestic business or long haul international domestic business,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said at an industry conference on March 15.

Of course, many planes won’t be coming back even if traffic does. American accelerated the retirement of its Boeing 757 and 767 and Airbus A330 aircraft, older jets that burn more fuel than new generation planes like the Boeing 787 and Boeing 777.

Many of those larger jets weren’t being used during the COVID-19 pandemic anyway because long-haul international flying has been mostly shut down.

But airlines are starting to bring back a handful of transatlantic and transpacific flights to places such as Madrid, Paris and Tokyo, meaning those big planes with longer range will be needed once again.

03/31/2021 - 9:16am