MIAMI — Virgin America will not be the first airline operating narrow-body Airbus jets to Hawaii. American Airlines intends to phase out its 757-200s on some Hawaii routes starting in August of this year, replacing them with its 2-cabin A321 layout. The A321s will have sharklets to increase range but are expected to still fly with weight restrictions in some cases, possibly due to shorter runways on a couple of the islands. These A321s will be a subfleet of the company’s rapidly expanding A321 operation with ETOPS certification to allow the long, overwater flights.
While American currently operates as many as 10 daily 757-200 flights from Los Angeles to the islands those are expected to be fully shifted to the A321 by the end of 2015. The 757-200s currently flying from Los Angeles will move to Phoenix where they will replace the older 757-200s currently operated by the US Airways subsidiary on the route. There are eight 757s in the US fleet which date back to the 1995-1999 era, the oldest in the combined AA fleet. These aircraft are expected to be retired as part of the move. Much like how United Airlines is retiring its oldest 757s from operation this move by American Airlines will create a more efficient and reliable operation, assuming the ETOPS certification works out.
Getting to ETOPs with the A321s should be easier for American than for Virgin America given the former’s experience with such processes on its existing fleets. Establishing a small ETOPS fleet goes counter to the efficiencies typically desired for operations but it is a necessary move in this situation in order to allow for the retirement of the older 757s. And American’s need for ETOPS-certified narrow-body aircraft is rather limited. Most of the longer over-water routes are operated by wide-body aircraft or the international configuration 757-200s. A few additional over-water routes exist which the A321s could serve but they do not require the full ETOPS levels of equipage which the Hawaii routes call for.
It should be noted that these deliveries are the “ceo” classic engine option. While the range is increased with the sharklets installed they do not have the newer engines and other improvements of the “neo” models. Moreover, they are not the long-range neo model with Airbus recently announced as a potential replacement for the 757-200s which serve intercontinental routes. American may do well to convert some of its future A321 deliveries to the LR version to take over flights from Phoenix to the islands eventually as the 757 fleet ages further but no firm progress has been announced in that direction yet.