Will Airlines Use More Narrowbody Aircraft On Long-Haul Routes?
Ask the Editors: The Aviation Week Network invites our readers to submit questions to our editors and analysts. We’ll answer them, and if we can’t we’ll reach out to our wide network of experts for advice.
Do you see the airline industry increasing the use of narrowbody aircraft on long-haul routes?
Jens Flottau, Aviation Week’s executive editor for commercial aviation, answers:
The industry was on the path to using more narrowbodies on long-haul routes before the novel coronavirus pandemic. Airlines such as United and JetBlue had committed to the idea by placing orders for the Airbus A321XLR, and the concept had gained traction in other regions too. In Europe, smaller legacy carriers such as Aer Lingus and TAP Air Portugal saw an opportunity to fly thin, long routes that would not have been viable previously based on using their Airbus A330s or other small widebodies. And AirAsia X has replaced part of its A330neo order with the A321XLR, underlining how thinking among airlines has changed.
Airline entrepreneur David Neeleman appears to be taking the idea one step further. His latest venture, Breeze, has ordered 60 Airbus A220s. Neeleman has been pushing Airbus to release design buffers in the aircraft, increase maximum takeoff weight and range to allow transatlantic flights and service deep into Latin America.
That all happened before COVID-19 decimated airlines. The question now is whether market dynamics will be fundamentally changed as air transport is rebuilt. The trend toward long-haul narrowbodies was primarily supported by the launch of the A321XLR, which will not be available until 2023. However, none of its orders have been canceled. Airlines should be in much better financial shape by then, but the market will be smaller than they had projected before the COVID crisis. The introduction of long-haul narrowbodies is therefore unlikely to be quicker.
There are other ways in which the market is changing. Thousands of nonstop services have been lost in the collapse of the air transport system and have been partly replaced by connections via hubs. It seems likely that hubs will be strengthened, while direct routes between some secondary markets may become too small for even narrowbody service. Hub operators could replace widebodies with aircraft like the XLR on routes with lower demand. But that is likely limited to aircraft that have already been ordered, as hub carriers are unlikely to be able to afford new orders for some time.
Then again, long-term social trends could play in favor of long-haul narrowbodies. There is an increasingly popular view that with the home office now firmly established, some companies will allow their employees to keep working remotely. That could potentially increase air travel demand from secondary markets.
Like any other segment of the market, a big question is whether there will be a return to pre-crisis habits for leisure traffic (likely) and business travelers (remains to be seen).