How Many Extra Airplanes Does An Airline Need? (Ask Cranky)

It’s time for another Ask Cranky. Today, we’re looking at an operations question from a reader.

How many extra planes do airlines keep on hand to fill in for maintenance issues that require longer than a day to fix? Or maybe a maintenance issue that is longer than a day to fix is very-very rare? I’d imagine that a small international carrier that flies a 747 on a route does not keep an extra 747 to fill in if they have equipment problems and that they delay flights or cancel and rebook on another route/carrier. However, it’s hard to imagine that Delta Airlines does not keep an extra few A320/737’s parked in Atlanta ready to go on a moment’s notice. So what is it like out there? How many extras do airlines generally have and where do they keep them?

Jeff Z.

It’s a great question, and it’s one that’s going to vary by airline. In general, the smallest airlines probably won’t have a spare on hand. It’s just too expensive to keep an airplane down, waiting for another to break if you’re so small in the first place. But as airlines get larger, they need more spares.

I remember when I worked at America West, we ran a terrible operation in the summer of 2000. Part of the fix was increasing the number of spare aircraft in the Phoenix hub to be able to recover more quickly when an airplane broke. (And they broke a lot back then.)

I went to US Airways and asked them about their spare situation today, and the answer was an interesting one.

Since we operate a “different” schedule each day the number fluctuates a bit.

Today for instance, we currently have 340 active lines of flying on the mainline operation. Here is what we have built into the schedule for spares:

13 spares total….

2 737’s (covering 300s and 400s), 7 Airbus (covering 319/320/321), 2 B757 (covering 757/767), 1 A330 (covering A330-200 and 300) and 1 EMB 190.

So there you have it. Each fleet type has at least one spare available, but it might not be an exact match. For example, if a 767 breaks, then only a 757 will be able to step in with about 25 fewer seats. During the off-peak winter season, that might not be as big of a problem as it may be during the packed summer season.

Every airline has a different philosophy on how many spares to keep and it will change within each airline. At America West, for example, when the airplanes were at a place where they became more reliable, they could look at reducing spares again.

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