Going long-haul at any cost

— by Branko Šabarić —

3.11.2016

Cheap fuel and myriad of point-to-point flight connections enabled even more passengers to fly on budget. And that sprung entire new market which it seemed impossible with older planes and engines — paying low cost and flying long haul.

Airbus chiefs must be scratching their heads lately as their glorious A380 project seems to stall. In times when introduced they competed with rival Boeing for a jumbo-craft domination. As Boeing was already in the game with B747, Airbus proclaimed their contender: A380. It was glorious. They even changed commonly used “heavy” ATC suffix to “super”, which is only shared with monstrous An-225. Actually ICAO required it for separation purposes (greater wake turbulence) but it seemed as such.

As Airbus was sure that the future is in hub market, transporting greater number of passengers in one go and connecting via major hub airports, Boeing played the smarter card. Their R&D team concluded that future is in smaller, twin engine airplanes flying point-to-point routes. There are many advantages compared to quad-engine airplanes: lower fuel consumption and maintenance cost, easier to dock (basically at any airport) without need for infrastructure hardening and many more.

Airbus A350
Image by Kiefer

But as it goes operating costs increased and twin engine race welcomed both Airbus and Boeing. Their production is spitting out B787’s and A350’s respectively. Short and medium haul fleet is receiving first neo and MAX planes — refreshed best sellers from both giants. Improved structure and aircraft profile, amazing new turbines that consume less fuel and make less noise are common characteristics for both of them. And plethora of options for any kind of operations — short (B737 MAX, A320neo), medium/long (B787, A330neo, A321neo) and long haul (B787, A350XWB, B777X). And they all have extra variants for longer range and capacity (the –900’s). The pattern is obvious: more flexibility, more adaptability.

Even before this revival, many carriers used single aisle or twin engine aircraft for ETOPS flights. US carriers used B757 and B767 for years to cross the Atlantic (trying to compete in that niche — Airbus is offering A321neo as an interesting replacement for B757). And many European leisure companies used A330 for the same purpose. Air Canada and British Airways even used A319 for crossing the pond. But the price of fuel was staggering. And then it plummeted (fuel price that is).

Cheap fuel and myriad of point-to-point flight connections enabled even more passengers to fly on budget. And that sprung entire new market which it seemed impossible with older planes and engines — paying low cost and flying long haul.

Airbus A321 Wow Air
Image by Wow Air

Some companies already tried similar concepts but there has never been a better moment than now to do so. Pioneers like AirAsiaX started flying on A330’s in 2007 connecting Malaysia and Australia. They recently ordered new generation A330neo and A350–900 aircraft. One of the most famous stories in the market is the story of Norwegian long haul. Entire project was wrapped around the idea of acquiring B787 Dreamliners that enabled the company flights to North America and Asia. One of the best business models in today’s market is operated by WOW air of Iceland. The idea is using perfect Iceland’s geographic position for connecting Europe and North America (similar route used by Icelandair). Using A321 for extending the feeding capacity per flight they are operating from many European airports with a stop in Reykjavik-Keflavik. And onward using combination of A321 and A330 aircraft. Future plan is leasing A321neo planes to boost the revenue. US carriers are responding too. JetBlue is awaiting delivery of A321LR aircraft which they consider to utilize for transatlantic flights.

Entire market is reshuffling though. Many legacy carriers are trying to nibble a piece of the low-cost cookie. It has been going on for years to some extent — but to be competitive nowadays one needs capacity. Lufthansa is completely overhauling its low-cost subsidiary Germanwings by re-building the Eurowings brand and adding it to the long-haul market. Future moves are a bit hazy but is seems they are ready for anything, even killing off some national carriers they control just to get more seats. It hasn’t been confirmed but the future of Brussels Airlines is at stake. It might wear Eurowings livery in the end. The latest news is coming from Air France-KLM group announcing they will start flying low-cost long-haul in 2017. The group is already operating low-cost but short-haul routes under the Hop! and Transavia brands. This time they are introducing new routes to Asia and possibly North America later on.

It has never been so exciting to travel. The world has literally shrunk and anybody can fly. The question is only at which cost.

Cover image by: Juraj Patekar