American Airlines will decide on the fate of its remaining McDonnell Douglas DC-10s by the end of the month as part of a major restructuring process that will see its total jet fleet increase to more than 700 aircraft from 2000 onwards.

"By the end of July, we should have decided when is the best time to replace them and what to replace them with," says American executive vice-president of operations, Bob Baker.

Despite the disposal of most of its DC-10 fleet to FedEx, American still operates 18 of the type, including 13 DC-10-10s and five DC-10-30s. It also operates 13 MD-11s, but will dispose of the last to FedEx in 2003 as the Boeing 777-200 takes over.

No details of American's replacement plan have been formalised, but some of its 35-strong fleet of Airbus Industrie A300-600s will be used to replace DC-10-10s on transcontinental routes. The airline has already announced it will use the Airbus to start a new route between Boston and London Gatwick.

American admits, however, that the A300-600 is "not perfect" for this role and it is therefore likely to continue looking for a longer-term replacement. The Boeing 757-300 and 767-400 are being studied "pretty seriously", says Baker, who adds: "We need a big aircraft with lots of seats that is cheap to operate."

The same parameters apply to American's search for a replacement for the handful of DC-10-30s used almost exclusively on its popular routes from Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago to Hawaii. The aircraft are heavily used by passengers using frequent flier miles, lowering revenues and requiring a large emphasis on very low direct operating costs.

The first 777-200 is due for delivery in January 1999, with 10 more to follow during the year. American has firm orders for 19 of the type for delivery by the end of 2001, although Baker believes that the 777 fleet could ultimately reach "around the 50 mark".

Between 15 and 20 of these are expected to be the yet to be launched ultra long range -200X variant around which American is planning its Asia-Pacific route strategy. Further 767-300ERs are also on order and, together with its current fleet of 30 -200s, these should bring its total 767 fleet to 79 within the next 18 months.

American's biggest new fleet introduction is the forthcoming 737-800. The fleet will grow rapidly at a rate of 24 aircraft a year for four years from 1999 onwards. A final batch of two -800s is due for delivery in 2003, to bring the fleet to 100, although further orders are expected to meet expansion plans.

Most of the airline's 79 elderly 727-200s still in service will start to be phased out in 2001, with 11 retirements due that year. A further 24 are due for disposal in 2002, 23 in 2003 and 16 in 2004.

Based on current orders and retirements, the total fleet will grow to a peak of 725 aircraft in 2001 before decreasing slowly to 684 in 2004. Baker says further growth is likely, however. "I don't think this is the final plan and, particularly from 2002 onwards, you'll see some activity," he predicts.

American also believes it is protected against recession and fears of overcapacity by the flexibility of its 20-year purchase agreement with Boeing and its ability to "-deck the DC-10s and move some of our [McDonnell Douglas] Super 80s, some of which are now more than 15 years old," says Baker.

Source: Flight International