Jumbo jets become a rare treat

Soaring jet fuel bills are forcing more of the already endangered jumbo jets from U.S. domestic service.

Airlines have scheduled wide-body jets on just 143 flights per day on average for routes between Lower 48 U.S. airports, according to a USA TODAY analysis of November schedules data from OAG — Official Airline Guide.

That's nearly a third fewer flights than a year ago, and the steepest percentage drop among all aircraft types. During the same period, use of small jets and narrow-body jets each fell by about 10%, the analysis shows.

Wide-body jets — such as Boeing 747s and 767s — are commonly found in the U.S. on long-haul flights, such as New York to Los Angeles.

Many business travelers love flying on jumbo jets. They contain more premium seats than smaller jets, boosting a person's odds of snaring an upgrade — especially in big cities where frequent fliers must compete for better seats. The planes also have cabins with higher ceilings, more toilets and more overhead bin space.

Even though they're "extremely difficult to find now," frequent flier Duane Maddy of Mount Airy, Md., says he tries to book United's cross-country flights flown with Boeing 767s or 777s rather than narrow-body jets. He finds that pilots turn on the mandatory seat-belt sign less often than on smaller jets.

"Similar to a large car, or larger ship, the ride is just more stable and more enjoyable, especially for trans-con flights," he says.

Frequent flier Bill Bredall of Pacifica, Calif., also likes the fact that the two aisles ease congestion when getting on or off the plane, or during the flight when walking to the restroom.

"You can make a choice if the cart's in the way," he says.

Bredall, who flies out of San Francisco and often flies to the East Coast, says he sometimes books a later flight if he sees that it's operated with a wide-body jet.

The role of wide bodies in the domestic aviation system has been shrinking for many years. Airlines began using them less as business fliers showed a greater preference for high-frequency service that was easier to provide with smaller regional jets. Today, regional jets operate 37% of domestic flights, compared with 12% in 2000.

Part of the reason has to do with unfavorable economics, as well as a desire to reduce seat capacity in the domestic market, says airline expert Bill Swelbar, research engineer for MIT's International Center for Air Transportation. The average wide body has 248 seats and burns 1,937 gallons per hour, while the average narrow body has 148 seats and burns 876 gallons per hour, he says.

In the last two years, Delta — the biggest operator of wide-body jets on domestic routes — shifted many wide-body jets from leisure routes such as Atlanta-Orlando and Atlanta-West Palm Beach, Fla., to long-haul domestic routes that feed its international flights, says Betsy Talton, a Delta spokeswoman. Today, Delta keeps mainly shorter-range Boeing 767s for domestic service, she says.

In November, wide-body jets will account for less than 1% of domestic flights. But travelers who know which airlines fly them most often — and on which routes — can still find them.

Delta and American have scheduled the most wide-body service, with 65 and 54 flights per day, respectively. On average, United scheduled 22 flights per day, US Airways two, and both Continental and Northwest none.

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