Is there a Future for Widebody Aircraft Post-COVID?

Photo: Emirates Boeing 777-200LR

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LONDON – COVID-19 has changed the way we fly, but the question remains, will we ever return to the way things were pre-COVID?

Aviation is a market that is constantly changing but COVID-19 brought in challenges and a need for change that has been unprecedented in the history of the industry, with more people traveling in 2019 than at any point in time.

When the virus broke out, the spread and reach of the virus was fast and not containable.

While the breakout is not really the fault of aviation, it has been one of the hardest-hit sectors, airlines around the world are fighting for survival and with requirements on passenger limits and negative tests even when routes open airlines are not able to fill planes out to their regular 90% load factor targets.

Despite all this, however challenging the new market conditions are, the COVID-19 outbreak has also given aviation a new life and a new role, with new airlines now emerging and offering flexibility in booking and cheaper services than ever before.

Photo: Airbus

But what will the future of aviation look like? Jetblue could be about to show us, with the carrier recently announcing London Heathrow and Gatwick as its starting destinations for its transatlantic launch program which will be operated from New York by their A321LR’s later this year, with the carrier then looking to increase the flight frequencies and routes from not just New York but also from Boston in 2022.

The launch of the Jetblue transatlantic program will be an important step and test for airlines to watch, if this service is successful and should Jetblue continue to see the growth and profits of such a route, then the question will become, is there a need for Wide-body aircraft to be operated in such high frequencies anymore?

While planes like the Airbus A350-900/1000 XWB and Boeing 777X and 787 Dreamliners are modern and efficient will not just disappear from our skies, aging planes like the 747, A380, A340, and A330s are starting to be phased out by airlines at expedited rates, and it’s not because they are bad aircraft, but rather they do not fit the needs of our current global market.

Market Changes Pre-COVID


This still doesn’t even give us the full picture, Airbus and Boeing in their recent reports have shown a decrease in orders for wide-body aircraft, and before people say this is logical due to the current global market, the drops in orders for these aircraft were coming even before COVID-19 was a threat the industry.

Airlines had stopped ordering these widebody planes and instead had begun to focus on a point to point model with small narrow-body aircraft, there was a clear shift in the trend and demands for the modern-day traveler, customers wanted to fly more directly to their destinations and not have to deal with the hub to hub model that many carriers had been operating for years.

With this change in trend, Boeing knew that the time for their iconic 747 was coming to an end, with Airbus also realizing this change would spell the end for their Super Jumbo A380 aircraft.

With 2019 rolling through, both Airbus and Boeing announced they would cease production on their jumbo aircraft, and when 2020 struck and the COVID-19 outbreak happened, airlines needed to look at ways to save money and cut costs and fast.

The clear approach was the reduction and early retirement of large Jumbo aircraft. The stage was then set for the end of the 747s illustrious career with the A380 after only 15 years of commercial service following the same path.

Myself (Adrian Pingstone)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This had larger implications than most might realize. The Jumbo jets may have been expensive to operate, but they allowed airlines to introduce new services and features that we had never seen before on aircraft, with showers being installed on the A380 Emirates fleet, in-flight bars, and of course the most expensive ticket in the world being the Etihad A380 residence.

Here is where the future of aviation is due for a change like we have never seen, airlines for the last 15 years have been offering more and more premium services and the focus has been on luxury and comfort.

However, despite all the convenience of a narrow-body aircraft and the more cost-effective way to travel point to point, the one major drawback is that luxuries such as showers and in-flight bars are not an option on these aircraft, they are simply too small to offer such experiences for customers.

This can be looked at in two ways. While your cost of the flight will be cheaper, is the future of aviation really going to be 9-hour flights on single-aisle narrow-body planes?

Well, Jetblue could be one airline that looks to shake this up, with their A321LR transatlantic services. They will operate the flight in a dual-seating configuration, with 24 redesigned Mint suites, a truly revolutionary product for short-haul flights, but how will it hold up against current first and business class on wide-bodies?

Only time will truly be able to answer that question, but the answer is most likely yes as with cheaper flights comes greater customer demand and for many people, a small loss in comforts that may be on offer on large aircraft is acceptable for a much lower ticket price.

Could Middle Eastern Carriers Be the Saviours of the Wide-body?


As we have talked about already, the change in travel demand had come long before COVID-19 has begun to affect the aviation market, but this doesn’t mean that we will see the end of wide-bodies.

This is seen with the big three middle eastern carriers still leading the way and showing the world that it is possible to operate hub to hub with a wide-body only aircraft fleet.

Emirates and Qatar are the two leading in this, with both airlines racing the position themselves into a stance that will allow them to grow fast and expand quickly as COVID restrictions are eased around the globe.

Akash0078 via Wikimedia Commons

The three main Middle Eastern carriers Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad still hold some of the largest orders for wide-body aircraft and this could be looked at as these airlines potentially having the say in the long-term future of such planes.

Each of the three airlines is based at a point that connected the far reaches of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

And with the focus on these flights being hub to hub using wide-bodies, not only is the aircraft efficient and able to fly such long distances, but their size has allowed these carriers to introduce services and customer experiences that have never been seen on aircraft before, with a point that could be made is that these three airlines are pioneers for the modern-day traveler and customer experience, something however that may not have been possible without the introduction of the A380 by all three airlines.

Due to COVID-19 and the higher costs of running them however all three of the airlines are phasing out their A380 fleets which are good news for wide-bodies like the 777X and A350-1000 which are perfect replacements for the A380.

Emirates will be the only one of the three that continues with the A380 for the foreseeable future with Etihad removing the aircraft from its fleet just last year and Qatar has already began to make light of the fact that it sees no future of the plane in its new fleet and service network.

But what does this all mean?


Well, when we look at current market trends with North American and European airlines we are seeing a sizable shift in their wants for narrow-bodies, with aircraft like the 737 MAX and A321 XLR offering them greater flexibility to operate flights to more secondary airports and more point to point flying, a market trend which has been very prominent in Europe for quite some time.

Photo: Airbus

But when you look at the Middle Eastern market, there is no great demand for point to point travel inside Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

With the airlines looking at a minimum 6-hour flight to southern Europe and 8 hours to Asian markets, wide-body planes fit the needs and demands of this travel much more which for the industry, shows that should we continue to see wide-body planes in our skies.

It is not likely we will continue to seem them in the quantities we do right now with European and North American airlines, but they will still have a need that needs to be met going into the future.

References:

  • Emirates orders A350’s and A330 neos: https://www.emirates.com/media-centre/emirates-announces-us-16-billion-order-for-50-a350-xwbs-at-dubai-airshow/
  • Airbus Cease A380 production: https://www.npr.org/2019/02/14/694620105/airbus-to-stop-production-of-a380-superjumbo-jet?t=1622292194354
  • Boeing announces 747 Production to cease in 2022: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-02/boeing-quietly-pulls-plug-on-the-747-closing-era-of-jumbo-jets
  • Airbus and Boeing see drops in Orders for Wide-body planes: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/15/the-boom-in-airplane-orders-is-over-for-boeing-and-airbus.html
  • Qatar Airways grow in COVID-19 market: https://aviationsource.news/airline/qatar-airways-leading-the-way-in-a-global-pandemic-interested-in-777x-freighter/
  • JetBlue announces Transatlantic route dates: https://aviationsource.news/general-news/jetblue-confirms-launch-dates-for-new-york-to-london-transatlantic-services/

About the author

Tomos Howells

Tomos Howells is the Chief Executive Officer for AviationSource. He will handle the day-to-day operations of the group, whether it be the financials or any extensive projects within the group.

Like with James, Tomos came from Airways Magazine as well after a successful writing stint within a two-year period.

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