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Do more 747s signal airline recovery?

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Tess Vigeland: Just north of Los Angeles, over the San Gabriel mountains, lies an enormous desert parking lot. Hundreds of idled aircraft sit gathering dust and sand. Airlines trimmed their fleets as the recession hit. They had to put the planes somewhere, and the desert now resembles L.A.’s 405 freeway at rush hour. But cargo and passenger volume are up, and a few major airlines are pulling mothballed 747s out of storage and back into service.

Janet Babin reports on whether that’s a signal that the industry is officially in recovery.

Janet Babin: The 747 is like the movie star of the jumbo airline fleet — a double-decker jet with an iconic bulb on top. When it first debuted, the upstairs was like a VIP club.

Andy Golub: It was the glamorous area with large seats, an open bar. Back in the early 70s, there were even grand pianos.

That’s Andy Golub, head of risk advisory for aircraft consulting company Ascend. He says when the recession made its descent, these long-haul jumbo jets were among the first idled.

But now, they’re coming back. A 747 can hold a lot of first-class international travelers and a lot of cargo. That makes them efficient at adding capacity, without adding cost. Ascend’s Andy Golub says passenger and cargo volumes are up, and a number of carriers — British Airways, United — have returned jumbos to the fleet.

Golub: We’re not going to necessarily see all the jumbo jets return to service, but the fact that they’re putting one and two and three and four aircraft back into their route networks is very strong for the message going into the next year.

It could signal recovery — or just an anecdotal jump. And if airlines put too many planes back in the air too fast, they could lose money. Passengers, on the other hand, stand to win from the additional seats.

Richard Aboulafia is an aviation analyst at The Teal Group.

Richard Aboulafia: Individual airlines may decide that adding capacity is a great idea, but if too many of them do it, that hurts pricing. So we’re going to have to wait and see. But if they do dump a lot of capacity in the system, that definitely means cheaper fares.

For now, though, passengers can expect stable fares and full planes — despite the added jumbos.

I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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