Airbus’s acquisition of a controlling interest in the Bombardier C Series and Boeing’s exploration of taking a stake in Embraer is turning more attention to the crossover narrowbody jets category.

Manufacturers hope more airlines including low-cost carriers (LCC) will look to use crossover narrowbody jets as a second type for thinner routes rather than the smaller members of the traditional narrowbody families. They believe there is increased market traction.

Antoine Chereau, director, market analytics and airline marketing, Americas, Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, takes the argument back to basics. “The airline business is a business like any other. To be sustainable, a company must generate profit,” he says. “The increasing availability of market data and the improvement of revenue management techniques are shaping new behaviors.

“Aircraft that are too big force airlines to sacrifice revenue-per-seat in order to preserve their load factor, resulting in lower profit per passenger. Rightsizing is the key to profitability. The more than 3,000 smaller members of traditional narrowbody families in service show that airlines understood the need for an adapted tool for each mission,” Chereau adds. But he also notes shrunken versions of traditional narrowbodies have an inefficiency that is not outweighed by commonality.

"The clean-sheet design of an airplane like the C Series allows very efficient small single-aisle aircraft specifically optimized for the mission," he adds.

Crossover jet

Arjan Meijer, chief commercial officer, Embraer Commercial Aviation, concurs, explaining that crossover jets “tap the acute equipment gap created by the unavailability of efficient and tailored solutions in the segment”.

With the first E190-E2 now delivered, Meijer says, “Crossover narrowbody jets will form an ever more integral part of the global air transport ecosystem. Market demand does not and will not warrant a structural shift toward large narrowbody aircraft across the board. Crossover narrowbody jets are positioned as a natural substitute at significantly improved cost per seat. This is a fact that cannot be ignored by operators.”

Stewart Cordner, senior vice president-commercial of SuperJet International, hones the theme further. “It’s all about using the smaller aircraft in a smart and laser-focused way to develop routes, add in extra frequencies, provide new services and secure better yields— if one has the right product of course,” he says.

“Generally speaking, where [the Sukhoi Superjet 100] could work is in an already developed market where volume capacity has been almost reached and the aggressive race for [available seat kilometers] has slowed or reduced. As such, it’s a ‘trip cost’ model, using the lower costs of a rightsized jet,” Cordner adds.

“One of our customers uses a process of approved MFF [mixed fleet flying] which essentially means, as the [Sukoi] SSJ100 and the Airbus narrowbody family are so closely related, MFF approval allows pilots to operate both A320s and SSJ100s with regular transition. Consequently, a common pool of pilots increases productivity through significantly improved scheduling flexibility,” Cordner says.

Crossover jet

Among the network carriers to have chosen a crossover jet to sit alongside its larger narrowbodies is Korean Air. So what drove its choice of the Bombardier CS300? “Since the early 2000s, low-cost carriers have shown rapid growth,” the airline says, “and increased competition within short-haul routes such as China, Japan and Southeast Asia became an issue that full-service carriers had to overcome. Because of the intensified competition, we have to maximize our cost efficiency to make profit.

“By introducing the CS300, which is 20% more fuel efficient than other narrowbody aircraft, we expect to strengthen our competitive advantage over LCCs and maximize our cost efficiency,” Korean Air says.

It is also possible that more LCCs will use crossover narrowbody jets instead of their single-aisle workhorses to enter markets with less traffic. Chereau expects to see this happen.

“The LCC revolution was built around traditional narrowbody aircraft. The system has now been pushed to its limit, and LCCs will struggle to move forward if they don’t adapt,” he says. “Most of the markets suitable for traditional LCC workhorses have been exploited. Among the top 10 LCCs [by number of routes], the exploration ratio [new routes divided by total routes] has dropped by half in the last 10 years. The small single-aisle aircraft is today a must-have for LCCs to exploit opportunities.”

Meijer points out that crossover narrowbody jets can fulfill two roles by serving thin regional routes that cannot be sustained by larger aircraft, as well as high-frequency routes with connectivity for business travelers.

“Legacy airline business models and LCC business models are slowly converging,” he observes. “The LCC model demands continued growth and, as opportunities to explore large cosmopolitan areas are limited, secondary and tertiary markets will become more relevant. LCCs focusing on increasing profitability, rather than bloody battles for market share, will consider adding a new fleet that allows them to develop new markets.

“Our purpose is not to leave it to our customers to figure out how to fill large-capacity aircraft for their networks, or to encourage them to do so by reducing yields. Our purpose is to actually provide a perfect match in capacity as required by the organic demand,” Meijer concludes.