In recent months US airlines have brought some 1,600 aircraft back into their fleets, bolstering their operations amid hopes that air travel demand would rebound following a dismal spring.

Thousands of aircraft remain in storage, but US government data does show a significant bump in summer air travel.

Still, hopes of a more-robust rebound have ebbed as the pandemic continues raging, and government aid is set to expire in the coming months.

Cirium fleets data shows the degree to which US carriers built up their operations this summer after grounding half their fleets in spring.

In early January, before the pandemic struck, US airlines operated some 6,100 aircraft, including turboprops, regional jets, narrowbodies and widebodies, Cirium data shows.

As the pandemic struck in early spring, those airlines grounded about 3,000 jets, leaving the in-service fleet at about 3,100 aircraft as of mid-May.

But the fleet has since swelled.

As of 19 August, US carriers operated about 4,650 aircraft, a 51% bump from the mid-May low, data shows.

All major US airlines added seats, but Florida-based Spirit Airlines led the charge. The ultra-low-cost carrier returned nearly 100 Airbus A320-family jets back to service in recent months, bringing its in-service fleet to 146 aircraft as of 19 August.

Eying a summer rebound, major US carriers rushed jets back to service 
Mainline US carriers Fleet, 15 June Fleet, 19 August Change Percent change
Alaska Airlines 82 142 60 73%
Allegiant Air 80 94 14 18%
American Airlines 494 721 227 46%
Delta Air Lines 299 550 251 84%
Frontier Airlines 54 82 28 52%
Hawaiian Airlines 25 46 21 84%
JetBlue Airways 87 205 118 136%
Southwest Airlines 484 642 158 33%
Spirit Airlines 53 146 93 175%
Sun Country Airlines 15 25 10 67%
United Airlines 229 448 219 96%
Total 1902 3101 1199 63%
Source: Cirium fleets data

New York’s JetBlue Airways has brought nearly 120 jets into service since mid-May, more than doubling its in-service fleet.

Likewise, Chicago-based United Airlines’ fleet nearly doubled between mid-May and mid-August, jumping to 448 aircraft, data shows.

Carriers added more narrowbodies than other types, bringing some 1,100 of those types back into service in recent months, a 64% bump from mid-May.

The in-service regional aircraft fleet has jumped 31% since spring to nearly 1,500 aircraft, and the in-service widebody fleet climbed about 50%, to 276 aircraft, according to Cirium.

US airline fleet changes since May, by aircraft type
Aircraft in fleet15 June19 AugustChangePercent change
Narrowbody aircraft
717 61 65 4 7%
757 42 116 74 176%
737 905 1480 575 64%
A220 31 31 0 0%
A319 234 281 47 20%
A320 265 484 219 83%
A321 208 413 205 99%
E190 17 22 5 29%
Total narrowbody 1763 2892 1129 64%
Widebody aircraft     
747  0 2 2 -
767 23 56 33 143%
777 52 79 27 52%
787 73 92 19 26%
A330 24 36 12 50%
A350 9 11 2 22%
Total Widebody 181 276 95 52%
* Source: Cirium fleets data

Carriers are still operating only about 75% of the aircraft they were at the start of the year, and several airlines are limiting capacity by blocking middle seats. The stored fleet now stands at some 2,200 aircraft, including about 700 regional aircraft, 1,100 narrowbodies and 380 widebodies, data shows.

Air travel demand did jump higher this summer.

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an average of 684,000 passengers passed through US airport security checkpoints daily between 1 July and 18 August.

That is down from about 2.5 million passengers daily in the same period last year. But it is up significantly from April, when an average of only 110,000 passengers passed through the checkpoints daily, according to the TSA.

United Airlines 777-300ER

Source: United Airlines

A United Airlines Boeing 777-300ER taking off. The airline has roughly doubled the number of in-service jets in its fleet in recent months.

Despite a summer bump, carriers have cut capacity next month amid ongoing quarantine requirements and the still-raging pandemic.

Airlines have trimmed their schedules to include 44 million seats on domestic routes in September, down 13% from 51 million seats in August, according to Cirium schedules data.

By comparison, US airlines carried 82 million seats on domestic routes in September 2019.

“Recent capacity gains in Europe and the US may be short-lived as airlines face lower leisure demand and scant business flying this fall,” says an 11 August report from Bloomberg Intelligence. “International capacity is only inching up slightly, as restrictions remain in most countries.”

The end of September also marks the expiration of furlough restrictions contained in the US government’s airline aid package. As a condition for making $29 billion available to pay airline employee expenses, the government prohibited carriers from laying off staff until 30 September.

Industry groups are now pushing for a second aid package, but major US airlines have warned employees of pending job cuts.

American Airlines has said it may need to cut 25,000 jobs, Delta Air Lines has warned of 17,000 furloughs and United has said 36,000 workers could lose their jobs.