As airlines worldwide ground their aircraft in the wake of a collapse in passenger demand, the industry has passed a key cross-over point with the number of stored jets now exceeding that of the active fleet.

As of early April, Cirium fleets data revealed that, on a global scale, the size of the active mainline jet fleet (Airbus and Boeing types) has diminished to that of the mid-1990s. Viewed o a regional basis, the situation is even more extreme.

Cirium tracks the global fleet, applying strict criteria of at least seven consecutive days of verified inactivity before recognising an aircraft as being grounded. This means that the data can lag the reality on the ground, where images of lines of stored aircraft already illustrate the scale of the issue. 

 

But analysis of data in early April shows that just under 9,500 of the 22,000 Airbus and Boeing jets operated by passenger airlines were still flying – or around 43%. This confirmed tally is expected to continue to decline in the coming weeks as Cirium data analysts recognise more aircraft as meeting its stored definition. Cirium data reveals that current size of the global in-service fleet is roughly the same as that in 1997.

Currently, three regions have more than two-thirds of their operating fleet grounded: Africa (86%), the Middle East (78%), and Europe (75%).

The airlines of Asia-Pacific and North America still have slightly more mainline passenger jets flying than stored. In each region, the number of active jets account for 56% of their total fleets. Europe holds the unenviable position of having the highest number of inactive aircraft – at just over 4,200 jets.

Comparison by region of the dramatic shrinkage of the global operating fleet highlights the shift in power between different parts of the world since the total fleet was last below 10,000 aircraft.

The largest active fleet is in Asia-Pacific where over 4,300 aircraft are flying. This is more than double the region’s fleet size in 1997. The opposite is true North America and Europe, where there are currently around 2,900 and 1,400 mainline airliners flying, respective reductions of 25% and 40%, compared with their 1997 fleets.

From a manufacturer perspective, Boeing aircraft accounted for the majority of the active fleet in 1997 and continue to do so in 2020, at roughly 5,000 aircraft. However, today’s active Airbus fleet of 4,400 aircraft is more than three times the size it was in 1997, highlighting the scale of the European firm’s progress during the last 23 years.

A comparison of year-end data for the last three decades highlights how the global operating fleet has generally increased each year, with some notable exceptions. Although the fleet grew slightly in 1991-1992 amid the downturn after the first Gulf War, the stored fleet tripled to over 700 aircraft.

The active fleet’s two previous declines occurred in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in 2008 after the global financial crisis. It remains to be seen how quickly the active fleet will return to growth in the coming months as the industry looks to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.