Europe generally has been a happy place for crossover narrowbody jets. After all, the continent provided the launch operators for the Airbus A220 (Swiss International Air Lines) and both generations of Embraer E-Jet (LOT Polish Airlines for the E1 and Wideroe for the E2).

Since delivery of that first E-Jet to LOT in 2004, Embraer has built a broad customer base in Europe. Victor Vieira, head of market strategy for Embraer Commercial Aviation, notes that more than 300 E-Jets currently fly across Europe in the colors of 30 operators.

The big question for the OEMs now is how much further the new crossover narrowbody jets can penetrate the European market compared with previous generation?

“Over the next 20 years, we foresee a demand for 2,820 new aircraft with up to 150 seats in the region,” Vieira predicts. “Our outlook shows that the segment will be the fastest growing in terms of fleet in service.

“The airline industry will increasingly consider the importance of profits and returns as the best metric to measure efficiency,” he continues. “Crossover narrowbody jets, like the E-Jets, are optimized to deliver not only a competitive cost structure and higher profitability, but also to provide flexibility to serve different missions. For the E195-E2 in particular, there is little mission overlap with what the E1 does today. The largest E2 model targets the market that Airbus and Boeing virtually vacated, even though there are more than 2,500 aircraft in operation now. For all the talk of ‘upgauging’ there are still over 700 sub-150-seat [Airbus] A320 and [Boeing] 737-family aircraft active in the region with around 60 airlines.”

The OEMs will be hoping for changes to the crowded skies of Europe—such as implementation of the Single European Sky—which would work favorably for crossover jets as they are used to offer better frequencies. “Infrastructure development such as airports and airspace is a challenge,” Vieira acknowledges. “Technical issues and cost restraints may pose risks in the short-term, but not over the long run.

“The key to sustainability for an airline is less about adapting its network to its capacity, and more [about adapting] capacity to its network. Not every time slot justifies a larger aircraft,” the Embraer executive explains. “Given the size and maturity of the European market, demand does not and will not warrant a structural shift upward toward large narrowbody aircraft across the board. One size simply does not fit all, and a rationalized fleet does not necessarily signify an optimized one.”

Airbus did not split its recent market forecast for narrowbodies into predictions for crossover jets and large single-aisle aircraft, but the 2017-36 Bombardier forecast for Europe foresees 2,200 aircraft to be delivered in the 60-150-seat segment. Of these, 1,000 deliveries are expected in the large regional aircraft category, with 1,200 in the ‘small single-aisle’ category. With retirements and net migration of aircraft taken into account, the total fleet in the latter category is forecast to rise to 1,170 in 2036 from 800 in 2017.

The most recent forecast from Superjet International covers 2016-35 and predicts 325 deliveries in the 61-90-seat market for jets, with 1,095 expected in the 91-120-seat segment. For the combined fleet of both segments, the number in service is expected to rise to 1,645 in 2035 from 820 in 2016.

For the Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ100), its current European services have mostly been in the colors of Brussels Airlines under a wet lease with Ireland-based operator CityJet. The former is reviewing its fleet choices though, and looks set to drop the SSJ100. With CityJet’s tie-up with Air Nostrum also in the works, the long-term future of the SSJ100 with CityJet also could be in doubt, given the number of CRJs the two airlines operate.

There is some optimism for the SSJ100, though, in the form of a letter of intent signed by the Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Co. and Adria Airways to take 15. Additionally, the two parties have signed a memorandum of understanding to create an SSJ100 maintenance and repair organization at Ljubljana Joze Pucnik Airport in Slovenia.

With such a variety of airline business models across Europe—full-service carriers, hybrids, low-fare carriers, wet-lease operators—Embraer’s Vieira has high hopes for orders, believing crossover narrowbody jets are “the most versatile aircraft in the market” and he highlights that each E-Jet type entered service under a different business model.

“The crossover narrowbody jet concept makes the perfect fit to virtually all business models,” Vieira emphasizes. “While competitiveness is increasing in high-density markets, where low-cost carriers usually thrive, there is still plenty of room for profitable operations on regional routes, connecting small communities to a major hub or in point-to-point services.

“Amsterdam, where connecting traffic accounts for 65% of total passenger movements, is a great indication of how critical right-size jets are for the hub-and-spoke system. Around 50% of departures from Schiphol are performed by crossover narrowbody jets,” Vieira states. “Considering the first bank only, the airport connects seven U.S. cities to more than 70 destinations in Europe [using] 60 routes served by crossover narrowbody jets.

“The limitation of a single-fleet strategy is increasingly becoming apparent for point-to-point operations as well,” Vieira argues. “There is a clear indication that some LCCs in the region can no longer sustain a robust market expansion. The mismatch between large-capacity narrowbody jets and market demand leads airlines to open new low-density markets with 1-3 weekly frequencies. In many cases, this level of air service does not make the route viable, and so, as quickly as it is added, it gets dropped.” 

Last year, the region’s LCCs canceled more markets than they actually opened.

“The largest 2,000 intra-European markets are already directly connected. As opportunities to explore trunk routes are limited, low-density markets will become more relevant in networks,” Vieira predicts. “Crossover narrowbody jets offer a new strategic mindset, as the scenario calls for a shift in focus from competing to creating new market space and seeking out untapped opportunities to explore low- and mid-density markets, where yields are up to 10% stronger than the average. 

“With airlines still under great pressure in the challenging European market, the potential is there for new crossover jet ‘horses’ to help by being winners on more than one ‘course.’”