Jumbo jets become a rare treat

Airlines cut domestic use of wide-body planes by a third, citing fuel costs.

ByBarbara De Lollis and Barbara Hansen, USA TODAY

— -- 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.

American puts most of them on popular cross-country routes such as New York John F. Kennedy to Los Angeles and San Francisco, but occasionally uses them on other routes to position a plane for international service or for maintenance, says Tim Smith, an American spokesman.

Travelers have the best chance of flying a wide-body jet in the USA in these cities based on average daily flights scheduled for November:

•Atlanta. Atlanta has the most domestic wide-body service, with Delta's average of 33 wide-body departures a day to 11 destinations in the Lower 48 states. The cities most served by wide-body jets from Atlanta are Los Angeles, Orlando and Las Vegas, with six departures on average a day. Delta also operates about three flights a day to San Francisco and Tampa.

•Los Angeles. American operates wide-body jets on approximately 14 flights a day from Los Angeles, including nine to New York JFK and two to Miami. Delta flies an average of six daily flights on wide bodies from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and United flies one daily flight each from Los Angeles to Washington Dulles and Chicago O'Hare.

•New York JFK. American runs nine flights a day to Los Angeles and five flights a day to San Francisco with wide-body jets.

It runs four flights a day to Miami and one to San Diego. Delta also has a couple of wide-body flights to Atlanta.

Even though they're dwindling, wide-body jets will continue flying across the USA, Swelbar says, because they're economical ways to feed hubs and international flights.

"It's the international focus that will keep the wide bodies in the domestic market," he says. "These planes are not obsolete. They're important."

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