With its distinctive hump, the Boeing 747 has been a familiar sight at airports around the world for more than four decades, but its days could be numbered, at least at Delta Air Lines Inc.
Delta President Ed Bastian said on a conference call Wednesday that the airline will soon consider whether to replace the four-engine, double-decked 747 on international routes with a smaller, more cost-efficient plane. He didn’t name any particular models.
Boeing Co. has delivered nearly 1,500 of the planes and is still building them for passenger and cargo use — airlines have 52 unfilled orders for the newest variant, which was certified in 2011, according to Boeing’s website. But airlines worried about the price of jet fuel and unable to fill the 747s have been opting for two-engine planes with fewer seats.
Last month, Japan’s All Nippon Airways announced that it will retire its 747 fleet. Delta inherited 16 of the jumbo jets when it bought Northwest Airlines in 2008, and they now average more than 20 years old.
On Wednesday’s conference call with analysts to discuss Delta’s first-quarter earnings, a Barclays analyst asked whether the airline might go to bigger planes — “up-gauging,” in the industry’s jargon — on international routes the way it is using bigger planes for regional flying in the U.S. Bigger planes let an airline spread fuel and other costs among more passengers.
“I don’t know that there’s a huge up-gauge strategy on the international,” Bastian answered. “Certainly there’s a big (cost per mile) benefit as we look at the fuel efficiency of the new aircraft.
“We do operate a large fleet of 747s still. We would expect those would be candidates for replacement in this next cycle (of aircraft orders). If anything, we would be down-gauging a bit there.”
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