LONDON — Boeing 747 jumbo jets are being brought out of desert storage as surging bookings spur carriers including British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways and United Airlines to return their biggest planes to traffic.
British Airways will restore a second 747-400 to its winter timetable in October after recalling one in May for use on its London-New York route. United brought a jumbo out of storage in California in June for deployment to Asia, London and Frankfurt, and Cathay Pacific has reinstated five freighters.
Wide-body planes accounted for about 25 percent of the 200 aircraft retrieved from storage in May and June as carriers sought to tap rising demand for long-haul trips and a leap in cargo shipments. The number of 747s recalled in June exceeded those mothballed for the first time since January 2009, data compiled by aviation consultant Ascend Worldwide Ltd. shows.
"Everybody is getting very excited about passenger and cargo volumes coming back, but there's a great temptation to add too much capacity," said Chris Tarry, an independent airline analyst and strategy consultant in London who has followed the industry for almost three decades. "What may be rational fleet decisions for individual airlines can add up to a problem for the industry when taken together."
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British Airways is lifting winter capacity about 7 percent from a year earlier but will only add seats where it can do so without depressing yields, a measure of prices, spokesman Euan Fordyce said. Europe's third-largest airline has learned a lesson from the 1990s, when it brought back "chunks" of capacity too quickly, treasurer George Stinnes said in June.
London-based British Airways and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific have both idled planes near Victorville on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert in California. Arid locations are favored for storage because the hot, dry conditions hamper corrosion.
Of the 112 jumbos mothballed since the start of last year, 40 have yet to be recalled, according to figures from Ascend. The United 747, with about 370 seats in a three-class layout, was brought back as a spare plane on busy long-haul routes out of Chicago and Los Angeles, spokesman Mike Trevino said.
Deutsche Lufthansa, Europe's second-biggest airline, is looking to reactivate a single jumbo stored in Germany after returning about a dozen short-haul planes and smaller wide-bodies to service, spokesman Peter Schneckenleitner said. The carrier has yet to decide where to deploy the jetliner.
"Wide-bodies have lagged behind the overall market but they're showing signs of health," said Andy Golub, an analyst at Ascend in New York who describes the high-capacity 747 as a "bellwether" for airline confidence.
"If people are paying for that high-priced seat or moving expedited products in the belly of an aircraft, that's a very good sign."
International passenger traffic rose 12 percent in June, the most-recent month for which figures are available, according to the International Air Transport Association. That prompted a jump in second-quarter yields at carriers including Lufthansa and British Airways. Cargo traffic rose 27 percent in the month.
Air France-KLM Group, Europe's biggest carrier, is phasing out 747s from its Paris-based Air France unit with the entry into service of Airbus SAS A380 superjumbos and Boeing 777-300ERs, spokeswoman Marina Tymen said.
Cathay Pacific will transfer four 747-400 cargo planes to Air China Cargo, in which it has a 49 percent stake, by the end of 2011. The departures will be balanced by deliveries of Boeing's new 747-8 freighter, spokeswoman Elin Wong said.