Airlines transfer large planes from Asia to US flights

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Travelers flying between Boston and Miami on American Airlines usually board a  Boeing 737 or Airbus A321 – workhorse planes that traverse the country daily.

This spring, some passengers are getting a major plane upgrade for the 3 1/2 hour flight. American is swapping in a Boeing 777, a widebody jet with 100 more seats, seatback entertainment and other perks, on some of the flights.

United Airlines passengers might find the same surprise on select flights between Chicago and Las Vegas or Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. United usually uses a Boeing 737 on those routes but is swapping in a Boeing 777 or Boeing 787 Dreamliner on some flights.

An American Airlines Boeing 777 lands at Miami International Airport on Feb. 24, 2019.

The airplane shuffle is happening across the country due to steep international flight cuts by U.S. airlines amid the coronavirus outbreak. American, Delta and United have all suspended service between the U.S. and China and Hong Kong through April and reduced or canceled flights to cities in South Korea, Italy and elsewhere.

“Those airplanes are no longer flying (internationally) but are a cost burden to the airline if they do nothing with them,” said John Grant, senior aviation analyst with travel data and company OAG. “Trying to utilize them as effectively as possible makes sense.”

Grant analyzed airline domestic flight schedules for March and April and said he can’t recall a time where so many widebody jets were being used on flights within the United States. (In general, fewer than 3% of domestic flights are operated with the bigger, twin-aisle planes.)

In April, United will operate 2,672 domestic flights with widebody jets, compared with 1,732 a year ago, a 54% increase. American’s schedule shows 1,572 widebody domestic flights, a 37% increase, and Delta’s use will jump 73%, to 1,543 domestic flights.

American Airlines is using a Boeing 777 widebody jet on some shorter-than-usual flights, including Boston-Miami, following heavy flight cancellations between the US and Asia due to coronavirus.

Grant said airlines mine their schedules to find routes where they can best fill a bigger plane. One of the most logical places: flights between their major hubs, which have a strong mix of local and connecting passengers and plenty of widebody flight crews.

OAG’s analysis, for example, shows a big increase in the number of flights between Dallas and Chicago American is operating with a bigger plane in March and April. The same is true for Denver-San Francisco flights on United.

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