Despite signs of life in many aviation markets, much of the airline industry remains in the doldrums. The number of passenger flights currently operating worldwide is just 61% of the number of passenger flights operating over the same time in 2019. As a result, the number of planes in storage has soared. At the end of February, there were over 10,000 commercial passenger planes in storage worldwide.
Despite signs of life, over 10,000 passenger planes remain in storage
Generally, if an aircraft is taken out of operations for a period exceeding three months, it is considered in storage (as opposed to merely “parked”). Storing a plane also involves multiple damage/deterioration measures not necessarily undertaken when an aircraft is simply parked for a few weeks.
Cirium’s February 2021 Airline Insights Report reveals 10,183 passenger aircraft were in storage that month and 21,635 passenger aircraft were flying. That’s over 32% of the world’s passenger aircraft not flying.
Breaking that number down by region, 2,937 (28.8%) North American- based aircraft were in storage, 3,536 (34.7%) Europe-based aircraft were in storage, 619 (6.1%) Latin American-based aircraft were in storage, 1,065 (10.5%) aircraft from the Middle East and Africa were in storage, and 1,956 (19.2%) aircraft from the Asia-Pacific region were in storage.
Several trends are emerging in the wake of the travel downturn that impacts the number and types of aircraft stored. Airlines are frequently eschewing widebodied aircraft in favor of narrowbodied aircraft. The most popular passenger planes in the air these days are Airbus A320s. Consequently, widebodied planes are now more likely to be stored than narrowbodied planes.
In March, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific had almost half its fleet in storage. Cathay Pacific has a preponderance of widebodied planes in its fleet and has no network within Special Administrative Region.
Multiple factors contribute to who stores aircraft and why
The availability, or not, of a domestic network matters. Airlines with decent domestic networks are seeing strong signs of recovery. That’s clear in markets as diverse as the United States, Vietnam, Russia, and Australia. Most airlines based in these markets now have fewer aircraft in storage than in 2020. It also helps that most domestic aircraft fleets generally utilize narrowbodied aircraft.
Signs of recovery are not region-specific. Recovery is narrower than that. Recovery is country-specific. North America is a tale of two markets. Domestic airline activity in the United States is bouncing back. But things are not going so well in Canada.
Over in the Middle East, a country such as Saudia Arabia, with a strong domestic market, is performing okay. Nearby, airlines based in Qatar and the UAE, mostly widebodied heavy airlines with no domestic networks, continue to suffer.
In Asia, airlines based in countries with normally vibrant domestic markets, such as Vietnam, have fewer aircraft in storage than, say, neighboring Singapore. In February, seat availability across the Singapore Airlines Group was 75.6% down on the previous February. Roughly 2/3 of the Singapore Airlines fleet remains in storage or sit parked.
Airlines like Singapore Airlines, lacking a domestic network, heavy with widebodied planes, and at the mercy of border closures and travel restrictions, have a far higher proportion of their fleet still in storage than, for example, Denver-based and domestic market-focused Frontier Airlines.
Most analysts do not expect the airline industry to fully recover for a few years yet. Recovery will be sporadic, location-specific, and subject to setbacks. Until then, significant numbers of passenger planes will stay in storage, especially the widebodied aircraft from airlines with substantial international operations.