US Airways scales back A330 plan: Sign of things to come?

Narrowbody deferrals have become a frequent occurrence around these parts, as US airlines struggle to survive the onslaught of sky-high fuel prices and a weakening economy. Thus far, however, widebody delivery schedules – and orders – remain largely untouched as international growth continues to help offset the domestic downturn. But there may be trouble ahead.

US Air A330.jpg

An early warning sign has been quietly erected by US Airways. Last week the carrier told employees that it has cancelled plans to lease two A330-200s. You may recall that the Star Alliance member in November 2007 announced a letter of intent with International Lease Finance (ILFC) to lease the widebodies in 2009. These were in addition to five newly ordered A330-200s for delivery in 2011, and a further ten standing orders for A330-200s due for delivery through 2009 and 2010.

In a letter to employees, the carrier says the two A330-200s “set to make their way into the fleet from a lessor” have been cancelled. It doesn’t mention if it plans to change its firm order with the airframer.

Yet when asked whether new international destinations will be announced, US Airways says: “We still have the authority to fly to Beijing from Philadelphia (and have received permission to begin flying in 2010 as opposed to our originally scheduled 2009 start date). We’re still looking at Tel Aviv, along with several other new destinations as we bring two new A330-200s fresh from the factory into our fleet in Q2 2009, but don’t have any formal plans to announce new service at this time.”

So are large-scale widebody order cancellations in the offing for our venerable legacies? US widebody orderbooks are not exactly bulging at the seams, but there are still some sizeable commitments with airframers. Apart from US Airways – which is also scheduled to eventually take Airbus A350s – Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines each hold orders for 25 Boeing 787s and 18 787s, respectively.

Flight’s ACAS database shows that American Airlines is still carrying orders for seven 777s and that Continental is slated to take eight more 777s. United Airlines has taken delivery of the last of its 777s, but holds options for 34. Delta Air Lines is earmarked for a further six 777s, while its merger partner Northwest’s entire widebody growth is wrapped up in that aforementioned 18-strong order for 787s.

For many months, respected industry analyst Adam Pilarski has predicted that the industry is at the cusp of a bubble explosion, and that cancellations are inevitable. “Nobody likes the term ‘cancellation’. Airlines don’t like it and the manufacturers don’t like it. But you already have announcements of deferrals. It’s already happening,” he said in a recent interview.

(Photo copyright AirTeam Images)

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