MIAMI — American Airlines plans to accelerate the retirements of all of its Airbus A330-300s, Embraer E190s, and some of its Boeing 767-300ERs, according to a letter from American VP of Flight Service Hector Adler that was first reported on by Brian Sumers. American currently operates nine Airbus A330-300s and 40 767-300ERs (out of a widebody fleet of 146 aircraft), and 20 E190s (out of a mainline narrowbody fleet of 796 aircraft).

The retirement of the oldest 15 767-300ERs had already been planned to take place between now and the end of 2017, and American now plans to retire an additional 8 in 2018, leaving the carrier with the 17 newest 767-300ERs in its fleet. The widebody aircraft will be directly replaced by ongoing deliveries of the Boeing 787-8, Boeing 787-9, and new deliveries of the Airbus A350 beginning next year.

American is one of the world’s first airlines to retire the A330-300

American’s nine A330-300s are an artifact of U.S. Airways pre-merger, which took delivery of the aircraft between 2000 and 2001. The goal was to enable the carrier to build upon its initial widebody fleet of Boeing 767-200ERs, and start serving large transatlantic destinations from Philadelphia (to a lesser degree from Charlotte as well). With Philadelphia as the primary hub and most long haul routes under 4,500 nautical miles (8,330 km.), the A330-300 was a good fit for the fleet.

Fast forward fifteen years (these are not young airplanes, and will be an average of 17 years old when retired in 2017 and 2018), and those A330-300s are pretty much on their last legs. Today there is a sense that the A330-300 is broadly competitive on transatlantic routes, even with the 787 Dreamliner. But that mindset is founded on the current iteration of the A330-300, which has benefited from several technical improvements over the past decade, including upgrades in payload (maximum take off weight or MTOW), reductions in fuel burn, and increases in its range (the last two via so-called performance improvement packages or PiPs).

Meanwhile, American’s A330-300s are older, less capable, and an expensive sub-fleet to keep around while having a fleet of retrofitted Boeing 777-200ERs flexible enough to operate to Europe, Asia, and South America from all of AA’s hubs (whereas the A330-300s were mostly just useful for transatlantic flights from the East Coast). The operating economics of both types for the actual frames that American operates are very similar, and the 777-200ERs are a few years younger on average.

American Airlines Boeing 777-200ER (Credits: Roberto Leiro)
American Airlines Boeing 777-200ER (Credits: Roberto Leiro)

Moreover, American has 22 Boeing 787-9s on order, which are even more fuel efficient than the A330-300 while offering nearly twice the functional operating range. Many of these will be used to replace the 767-300ERs to leave the fleet, but some of the aircraft may also rotate in to cover A330-300 routes. And on top of all of that, American still has 22 similarly sized A350-900s on order. For American, unlike Delta, the A330-300 is largely redundant in its widebody fleet.

The 767-300ER retirement acceleration doesn’t make much sense

American’s initial plan to retire the oldest of its 58 767-300ERs and consolidate down to a fleet of the 25 newest frames actually predates the precipitous drop in fuel prices since the middle of June 2014. So it doesn’t make much sense that American is opting to accelerate retirements of those aircraft right when they’ve become more economical than ever. It’s possible that American will increase deliveries of the 787-8 or 787-9 to compensate, as these aircraft are more flexible and can be used network wide, but there have been no hints at such a plan for American. The other possibility is that the deepening economic woes of South America, where many 767-300ERs are used to fly non-stop flights from secondary destinations to Miami, have reduced the need for the 767-300ER in American’s network. And to be fair, American is still taking 787s over the next couple of years: 8 in 2016, 13 in 2017 and 8 in 2018 to total 42 of the type.

The E190’s departure opens the door (slightly) for the CSeries

The Embraer E190s meanwhile, have been long rumored to be on their way out, as a small sub-fleet of 20 100-seat jets wasn’t a great fit for the combined carrier’s network. The E190s were a good fit for mid day and off peak departures on the American Shuttle between Boston, New York LaGuardia, and Washington Reagan, but those flights can be shifted down to E175s relatively easily while peak departures remain on the larger Airbus A319.

US Airways Embraer E190 leaving DCA. (Credits: Luis F. Linares)
US Airways Embraer E190 leaving DCA. (Credits: Luis F. Linares)

The question that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue after the recent Delta order is whether this opens the door for American to order the Bombardier CSeries. There is definitely a need for a 100-120 seat aircraft in American’s fleet, particularly at Chicago O’Hare and Philadelphia for offering frequency on business travel oriented routes, and at Miami for offering long and thin domestic flights. But American has a bunch of Airbus A319s on property, which are not far from that 120 seat figure (the two variants seat 124 and 128 passengers respectively), and it is rapidly taking delivery of a ton of mainline aircraft, to the point that a substantial (50+ aircraft) CSeries order may be too much to bite off and chew. The CSeries is a good fit for American’s fleet, but it might not be priority number one, two, or even ten for American right now.