Is the Future of Flying on Single-Aisle Planes?

May 30, 2019

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In 2002, aviation entrepreneur and business tycoon Richard Branson presented Virgin Atlantic’s brand new Airbus A340-600 to the world for the very first time. The aircraft featured a catchline on the fuselage that turned out not to age very well: ‘4 engines 4 long haul’. He proudly promoted this phrase on the basis that Virgin had found that 18% of travellers would “go out of their way” to fly on four-engine aircraft.

While industry executives would ridicule such a claim now, almost 20 years later, this was at a time when Branson, like other airline CEOs, also believed ‘the A380 is the way of the future’. Now, we know that not to be the case, as some airlines are already scrapping the passenger-loved superjumbo jet due to its poor economics and heavy fuel consumption compared with others on the market.

Efficiency is at the core of an airline’s fleet strategy more than ever before. As aircraft become more capable in terms of their overall efficiency, airlines are demanding increased levels of efficiency from both the aircraft manufacturers and the engine suppliers powering the jet. We’re currently at a period of the aviation cycle whereby airlines are demanding the efficiency and economics of a short-haul jet on aircraft with capabilities of a long-haul jet.

It’s left Airbus and Boeing scrambling to introduce single-aisle, longer-range jets to cater to a market segment known as the ‘Middle of Market’ — often abbreviated as the “MoM’. This sweet spot area of the market is ultimately transforming the way we travel long-haul. More airlines are ditching gas-guzzling widebody jets in favour of single-aisle, fuel-efficient aircraft that are of a similar physical size as the aircraft we’d expect to fly on a two-hour intra-Europe hop.

Generally speaking, aircraft such as the Airbus A321LR and Boeing 737 MAX 10 fit such a description. These are aircraft that are able to be used on routes that are essentially the short-haul end of long-haul — generally, flights that are up to nine hours. In Asia, Philippine Airlines uses the A321neo between Manila and Sydney, a route that’s typically flown by widebody jets. In fact, prior to the bankruptcy of both Scandinavian carrier Primera Air and Icelandic low-cost airline WOW Air, both used the A321neo for transatlantic routes connecting Europe and North America. (It’s worth noting that the cause of their respective bankruptcies was predominantly due to their over-ambitious expansion in route network, rather than anything to do with their single-aisle for long haul operation.)

The A321LR, a long-range variant of the A321neo, can fly more than 4,000 nautical miles when the on board seating capacity is configured for 206 passengers. Wingtip devices known as ‘Sharklets’ reduce drag and add around 150 nautical miles to the overall range of the aircraft. Another 350 miles are added by new high-bypass turbofan engines. But where’s all this fuel being stored on a relatively smaller jet? It’s held in an additional centre tank. Both Arkia Airlines of Israel, and TAP Air Portugal have already taken delivery of the aircraft type, and JetBlue plans to fly it between the East Coast of the US and London.

(Photo courtesy Airbus.)
(Photo courtesy Airbus)

While it’s clear that there are many reasons airlines love these type of jets, can the same be said for passengers? The most obvious concern from a passenger perspective is that the same levels of comfort cannot be maintained on a single-aisle jet compared with a widebody jet, even if parameters such as seat pitch and width were kept the same. The ‘airy feeling’ and ‘sense of space’ associated with large aircraft means that many passengers feel more comfortable on larger jets, irrespective of the dimensions of their actual seat.

Furthermore, with airlines continuing to commit to single-aisle jets for long-haul operations, the potential of social areas on board, such as bars, lounge spaces or relaxation areas, disappears. However, premium travellers should fear not — ‘suite’ seats, sliding doors, lie-flat beds and 1-1 configurations are all available to be installed on to aircraft such as the A321LR.

In many ways, it’s a mindset switch that may be necessary. As we associate long-haul with 747s, A380s, 787s, A350s and others of the like, perhaps we need to realise that six-hour flights are relatively short in our connected world. While the smaller jets may feel the impact of turbulence slightly more than a larger jet, the flight itself shouldn’t feel too different providing the same, or better levels of comfort are maintained.

Airbus isn’t stopping at the A321LR for its single-aisle, long-range jets. In fact, the manufacturer is in detailed talks with airlines over the price and timing of an even longer-range variant, currently dubbed the ‘A321XLR’. A formal launch of the A321XLR will take place later this year, and airlines like Lufthansa have confirmed that they are encouraging Airbus to push on with delivering the longer-range version of an already-long-range jet.

With 747s retiring from airlines across the globe and the poor economics of the A380 set to push airlines into retiring the jets far earlier than Airbus could have imagined, the industry is turning its attention to single-aisle at a faster pace than ever before.

For cabin suppliers, many are working on ensuring passengers are still able to be ‘wowed’ when boarding a jet they perceive as being small. For airlines, the introduction of more fuel-efficient jets can’t come soon enough. In spite of the passenger reluctancy, on your next flight in the ‘Middle of Market’ segment, you may find yourself on a single-aisle jet that airlines are tipping to be ‘the future’.

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