Why Some Airlines Fly the A350 Long-Haul, and Others on Domestic Routes

Jul 15, 2019

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The Airbus A350 XWB has established a strong presence in the commercial market ever since its first delivery in 2015. Today, airlines operate the aircraft across the globe — including the soon-to-be delivered A350s for both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

The A350 XWB (extra wide body) is a family of aircraft comprised of only two variants: the A350-900 and the longer A350-1000. Both variants share 95% common systems, part numbers and the same type rating, meaning A350-900 pilots can also fly the -1000. Where the two are slightly different, however, is that the -1000 is 7 metres longer, has a higher maximum takeoff weight, an extra set of tyres on the landing gear and a slightly more powerful engine in terms of thrust.

The majority of routes operated by the A359 since it entered service can be classified as long-haul. The jet has replaced a range of older aircraft models in a bid for carriers to improve efficiency while offering passengers a stronger, improved passenger experience.

But while this long-haul aircraft was created with the intention to frequently operate flights of anything between 9-15 hours, airlines are more commonly taking it shorter haul. One of the shortest A350-operated routes is the 293-kilometre flight from Singapore (SIN) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL) by Singapore Airlines.

This could be surprising for a European-based passenger to discover, given that European routes are less than six hours and are most frequently operated by Airbus or Boeing single-aisle jets such as the A320 or 737. But in South East Asia, the different yields and stronger load factors on some routes means it not only makes sense to deploy a wide-body jet on a two-hour flight, it’s also a financially sound decision.

Last month, Japan Airlines took delivery of its first-ever Airbus jet, an A350-900 XWB modified for domestic operations. It’s the first A350-900 that will fly on a strictly domestic route network. Airbus modified the aircraft to have a reduced maximum takeoff weight of 217 tonnes in order to prepare the jet for high-cycle, turnaround operations.

While these A359-operated routes will be around two hours in flight time, the aircraft has three cabin classes: first, business and economy. “It’s especially important for us to meet the premium demand on our domestic routes. This is typical of Japan”, the CEO of Japan Airlines told TPG UK in Toulouse, France.

From 2023, the airline anticipates it will fly the A350-1000 on long-haul routes. Once those long-haul operations begin, Japan Airlines will be the first airline to treat the -900 as a short-haul jet and the -1000 as a long-haul jet, despite the aircraft being so similar.

Singapore Airlines resumed some of its ultra-long-haul routes with the A350, such as Newark (EWR) to Singapore (SIN). For an airline looking to break-even — and, better yet, come out ahead — on an ultra-long-haul flight, the metrics are often different from the average three-hour jaunt. On these flights, an occupied seat in business class can make the airline up to four times as much an occupied economy class seat.

With this in mind, Singapore Airlines has a premium-only offering on its ULR jets, comprising of only premium economy and business class.

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

Does it make sense to operate the A350 on these ultra-long-haul routes? The ULR itself doesn’t require additional fuel tanks over the standard A350-900, but instead uses additional space already available in the existing tanks to carry an extra 6,340 gallons of fuel to take its range to 9,700 nautical miles, which is around 1,600 miles more than the standard -900. It means the aircraft can fly for more than 20 hours at a time, depending on the onboard seating configuration.

“We can definitely see the efficiency in our bottom line figures, which is great for both the environment and for business,” Finnair’s COO Jaakko Schildt explained to TPG UK on why the airline uses the aircraft on short-haul flights between Finland and the UK. “It also benefits us with new cargo potential — hence why we fly the aircraft between London and Helsinki, a big cargo route for us”.

Schildt revealed that utilisation of each A350 jet is around 16.5 hours per day, but this sometimes exceeds 17 hours per day depending on winds, airspace routings and other external factors. And the higher the utilisation — how many hours the plane spends in the air making money, instead of on the ground costing money — the better it is for airlines. 17 hours is on the high side.

Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

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