Thursday, July 25, 2024

Single Aisles Take Centrestage As Industry Reworks Priorities

By Bikram Vohra

Bikram Vohra, Consulting Editor

When history is written of this relatively sad and pressured era in commercial aviation, it might well blame the Covid pandemic for the revision of plans in the manufacturing industry. While it cannot be denied that it has had some impact on earlier projections and sent both Boeing and Airbus back to the drawing board, what has also occurred is a mix of economics and passenger mindset coalescing into a new priority.

A comfortable ride on a single aisle long haul aircraft with less complement on board than the mass transit afforded by a 747 or the 380. Less cost to the carrier, lighter carbon print, more frequency, shorter check time and effort, quicker baggage retrieval and if the pitch in economy is decent, the service in all classes exemplary, what’s not to like?

In addition, that does seem to be the way things are going. Have a look at the big boys and how they have come off their assembly lines. As high, as 89% of Airbus and 81% of Boeing’s backlog in mid 2021 were narrowbody aircraft like the Airbus A220 and A320ceo/neo and the Boeing 737 NG/MAX.

Boeing shut down its 747-production line in 2022, while Airbus delivered its last A380 to Emirates and closed shop. In 2021, Boeing delivered 263 of its 737 family planes while Airbus delivered 483 A320 family aircraft.

Add to this rising graph the yet nascent but still valid options of the Chinese C919, the Russian Irkut M21 and the Embraer Ejet series and you can see why single aisles are the favoured choice. Airbus bought over Bombardier’s excellent C series product line and with its global support network is ideally placed to give the A220 a major push as a plane of first choice in the years to come.

Airbus markets it with sufficient panache, much of it deserved; from the start, the single-aisle A220 Family was designed to feel like a wide-body aircraft. The cabin provides passengers with wide seats and generous personal space for a super comfortable experience. Its new-generation engines contribute to the quietest interior in its class while also burning less fuel and reducing noise levels during airport operations.

Moreover, it is cheaper to buy by millions than the giants.

Although the Russian and Chinese challenges are way behind in terms of market presence and do not pose a threat as yet to the 320 and 737 families the fact is they are for real and once they emphasise credibility by offering worldwide support infrastructure then they are in the game. While a large part of the Chinese C919 project is still very much obtained from western sources, that dependency could change rapidly.

The COMAC C919 has received its certification and there are already orders for 815 aircraft so that is no light matter. The Chinese have gone on record as saying they aim to take a fifth of the global narrowbody market and a third of the Chinese market by 2035. COMAC   expects 2,000 sales in the next 20 years.

The Russian IrkutMS21 does currently suffer from a shortage of maintenance support but the Russians have placed their faith in it and it is a direct competitor to the 737 and 320 segments. Irkut rolled out the first MC-21-300 on 8 June 2016 and first flew the aircraft on 28 May 2017. After several years of delays, the first deliveries are expected for Russian airlines in 2022 and international customers in 2025. Roughly, 200 firm orders are on the books currently.

Brazil’s Embraer is well positioned to have that sort of access to infrastructure and back up. It has displayed its E195-E2 aircraft, considered the world’s most efficient and sustainable single-aisle plane. “With its new design and technology, the E195-E2 is number one,” said Arjan Meijer, Embraer Commercial Aviation’s chief executive.

“This jet-powered aircraft emits 25 per cent less emissions per seat than a typical turboprop and has the lowest levels of external noise and emissions among all jet aircraft.” Embraer is aiming to establish its credentials in the 90- to 120-seat aircraft. The market call for that niche alone is as high as 4,125 planes over the next two decades and that is a market market worth at least $160 billion so why not aim for it?

So much so for the future are single aisles becoming viable that even Boeing has toyed with the idea of converting its 797 into a single aisle long haul aircraft and adding an even happier edge to the economic savings of currently Mother Hubbard coffers in over 400 carriers. Looks like taking on Airbus 321 XLR is a tempting option. If comfort is not sacrificed, there is a good feel about the economics behind single aisle long hauls. The 737 Max-10 is not a direct competitor to the A321 but a reworked 797 could be in this 200 plus category. 

Ironically, even as the past two decades celebrated the joyous luxury of the twin aisle, double decker four-class configuration these have now become a drain on the bottom line and it could well be the time that the single aisle fleets will canter in and be the saviours.

Over the next twenty years, it is estimated that over 4000 planes will be sought in the 90- to 120-seat aircraft segment, a market worth as high as $160 billion.

What all these trends tell us is that the four engine behemoths are no longer fiscally viable. In addition, the flying public does not really care whether it is twin aisle or single so long as the service experience is marked by efficiency and comfort with the accent on comfort.

Many airlines are to replace such large planes with more economical two-engine planes, as the space and luxury offered by the former are no longer needed based on new consumer trends. In fact, several carriers are already experimenting with flatbeds for eight plus hour flights. Vantage and Diamond designed flatbeds have begun to make their presence felt on narrowbody aircraft currently being delivered. Flydubai’s 737 MAX offers VantageLa Compagnie’s A321neo offers Diamond and others are weighing options. They may not be as luxurious as those seen in widebodies may but they are getting there.

Airbus has already gone on record as saying it will be hard-placed to manufacture enough aircraft to meet the demand. As more airports are commissioned one of, the results of this backlog will be an opportunity for others to wriggle into the market. Rather than wait for years it is better to go in for comparable alternatives. Enter China, Russia, and Brazil.

Even as we observe this phenomenon unfold, the new mindset also has a role in the decision. 

Between work from home, Zoom conferences, the fear of infection and the tedious nature of multi-government virus protocols we might continue to think in situ even after the pandemic has abated. As things stand, it seems that whether it is domestic routes or international the single aisle option makes sense.

Moreover, in the natural progression of things it offers the opportunity to be short haul and long haul in economically acceptable frames. If this sensible, no grand gesture attitude has staying power, the return of turbos will be no surprise especially on the 90 to 120 minute routes. That is another story.


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