CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – DECEMBER 13: A United Airlines flight lifts off at O’Hare International Airport on December 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. United Airlines said that it has placed an order for 100 new Boeing 787s, a purchase estimated to be valued at more than $16 billion.Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)
After COVID-19 slapped around the supply chain, Americans have become used to shortages in most aspects of life. Airline companies are no exception, with everything from airplane parts to flight crews to air traffic controllers hard to come by. Now, the airline industry is facing a whole new shortage of a pretty essential element: jet aircraft.
Supply chain problems, pent-up demand for travel and aircraft age issues are leading to a perfect storm for airlines. United Airlines just placed the largest order for widebody jet aircraft from Boeing in U.S. history. One expert told Bloomberg every plane ordered from Airbus has arrived over two years late. The European jet manufacturer has a current backlog of 6,100 orders, making airlines unenthusiastic about placing any new orders with the company. Pretty good for a manufacturer that was on life support before the pandemic.
With carriers from United Airlines Holdings Inc. to Air India Ltd. placing, or looking to place, jet orders that number in the hundreds, Boeing Co. and Airbus SE are crowing variously about blockbuster deals. But supply chain constraints mean those planes won’t be delivered until possibly years down the track — Jefferies LLC estimates there’s an order backlog of 12,720 aircraft currently.
“People got used to lower fares during the pandemic and China’s reopening will make it worse,” Ajay Awtaney, the founder of frequent flier website LiveFromALounge.com, said. “It’s not just a shortage of planes but also other factors like oil prices.”
While one cashed-up airline in a particular jurisdiction may have the financial wherewithal to bring prices down, that would likely cause other carriers to stumble, “leading to even higher fares in the long run,” Awtaney said.
Boeing and Airbus, the planemaking giants that largely enjoy a duopoly supplying passenger jets, are sold out for their most popular single-aisle models through until at least 2029.
Another unforeseen issue compounding the airliner shortage problem is that many airlines stored unused planes in massive desert holding areas during the COVID-19 lockdowns when demand for travel plummeted. Hundreds of these plans are still sitting in remote parking lots, either too old to take to the skies again or in need of heavy maintenance to make them functional.
What does this mean for you, the traveling public? Oh, more of the same: Higher fares, more canceled flights and longer lines at the airport in 2023, with no sign of relief as the industry waits for nearly 13,000 new planes to make it to hangars and runways across the country.