As airlines await deliveries of new-generation replacements for older widebody fleets, the need to balance economics and passenger comfort has never been greater. Some carriers are now trying to make the best out of the waiting time by optimizing their current fleets. 

The high engine maintenance costs and fuel burn associated with operating the long-range, four-engine Airbus A340 drove airlines away from ordering the aircraft, which is now out of production, making it a high-profile casualty of fuel economics. Singapore Airlines ended the world’s longest commercial flights when it returned its A340-500s to Airbus last year. Emirates has decided to retire and part-out one of its relatively young A340-500s, and it is accelerating the phase-out of the rest of its A340 fleet. But more than 350 A340s remain in service, and some operators are determined to squeeze more life out of them.

Spain’s Iberia, which has a large fleet-renewal program on the horizon, is halfway through cabin overhauls of its 17 A340-600s. The airline’s parent, International Airlines Group (IAG), has options for Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s to replace the A340s, but with no firm order in sight, the airline is making do with its existing long-haul fleet on its key routes to Latin America and the U.S. West Coast.

The cabin refitting, being conducted at Iberia’s La Munoza hangar in Madrid, takes 6-7 weeks and includes installing new seats in business and economy class as well as new inflight entertainment (IFE) systems and wireless/mobile communications capabilities throughout. To avoid stripping the aircraft twice, refits are scheduled to be performed during C or D checks, taking the timetable of the program to the end of 2014.

Iberia’s upgraded business cabin has 46 longer and wider lie-flat seats with direct aisle access in a staggered configuration that has allowed the airline to add four more seats in the cabin. The 300 new economy-class seats, manufactured by Zodiac, are fitted with Panasonic eX2 individual touchscreens; the aircraft that will be refurbished are now equipped with six overhead screens in the economy cabin.

The end result is an updated, modern cabin in both classes that enables Iberia to compete head on against Latin American carriers in the lucrative South American market. But while Iberia has greatly improved the passenger experience on the aircraft, it has not  gained any significant weight savings, so its cost per flight hour remains the same. The thinner economy seats are lighter, but the new individual seatback screens and related cabling cancel out the weight reduction. With IFE installed, the new seats weigh 20 kg (44 lb.) each, exactly the same as the older seats without screens. The new business-class seats are 50 kg lighter than the previous ones, resulting in a net saving of 1,700 kg in the business cabin.

Even so, the business case for Iberia’s A340 cabin renewal was justified, according to Jose Luis Quiros, technical director at Iberia Maintenance, who says the airline does not need an extension in life of the aircraft beyond its fleet replacement, but “it would definitely help to get additional benefit out of it if we can manage a reduction in engine maintenance costs.” Iberia wants to take advantage of the investment it has made into the refits, but Quiros says there has to be a change in the existing maintenance model in Rolls-Royce’s TotalCare package. “It is a must that something has to change from the current scenario. If it doesn’t, we will go ahead with the fleet renewal [being implemented by IAG] as it is,” without the A340s in the airline’s future.

The Rolls-Royce Trent 500 engines that power the aircraft account for half an A340’s maintenance cost. “If you can significantly improve the maintenance cost, you will definitely change the equation and make viable the extension in operating life of the airplane,” Quiros tells Aviation Week.

He draws comparisons between the out-of-production RB211 engine and the Trent 500, but he notes that unlike the RB211, the Trent 500 is “not yet a sunset engine.” Iberia Maintenance is working with Rolls on a solution that drives down the cost of maintaining the RB211 so the lives of Boeing 757s in freighter operations can be extended. “For any sunset engine, the OEM will maximize the use of used parts to reduce maintenance costs,” Quiros says. “That is the only thing the OEM can do.” As a maintenance, repair and overhaul partner, Iberia is repairing the serviceable parts of burnt-off engines to refit on flying fleets. The result is a drop in material costs of 60-70% of total engine cost.

Similar principles will apply to the A340-600 fleet, he says. “If Rolls is capable of reducing the maintenance costs of the Trent 500, we will consider it profitable to extend the operational life of the airplane.” Quiros predicts that a point will be reached where parts of the A340 fleet will be able to use burnt-off engines from grounded airplanes. “Not tomorrow, but it will happen in three to five years,” he says.

If his predictions are correct, the current limited second-hand marketplace for the type could open up, and there will be plenty on the market in the coming years. Of the airlines operating larger fleets of A340-600s, only South African Airways has no replacement plans in place. The airline issued a request for proposals but was forced to pull it back to take into account new offset requirements put forward by its owner, the South African government. Virgin Atlantic has 787-9s on order; Etihad’s spending spree has added Boeing 777s and 787s and Airbus A350s to its backlog and Lufthansa, the largest A340-600 operator and launch customer of the type, also has a large backlog of 20 777Xs and 25 A350-900s.

But the A340s will continue to play an important role in Lufthansa’s long-haul operation for some time. The airline at one point operated 35 A340-200s and -300s but now has just 21 -300s, as it has sold many smaller A340 versions. Luft-hansa still operates 24 A340-600s, for which it has no concrete replacement plans on the horizon.

As part of its ongoing plan to reduce unit costs and go for “cheap growth,” all of Lufthansa’s remaining A340-300s are undergoing major cabin retrofits. First-class seats will be removed to make room for a new business-class cabin as well as the recently unveiled premium-economy seats, which will make up 10% of total aircraft capacity. The A340-600 fleet will have a new first-class cabin. The measures will increase capacity without adding aircraft.

The new business-class cabin featuring lie-flat seats for the first time, will be introduced fleet-wide by the summer of 2015. By then, premium economy will also be fitted. The refurbishment also allows Lufthansa to introduce an improved IFE system.

Like Iberia, Lufthansa’s rationale is to maximize the revenue potential of its A340s in particular, when there is little it can do about its trip-cost performance. Weight is not a major factor in the changes for Lufthansa. It is adjusting its capacity configurations to stem the large losses it has incurred by offering first class in markets where it is not a popular product. 

 

With Jens Flottau in Frankfurt.