Who blinks?

May 13, 2014 on 4:54 pm | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Both Airbus and Boeing have next generation updates to their single aisle products on track for delivery in the next few years.  The Airbus A320NEO is arguably the better seller over the 737MAX but both are succeeding well enough to continue sales for quite some time.

But who will blink first?

That is, who will build the next completely re-designed single aisle aircraft that will replace the Airbus A320NEO and Boeing 737MAX aircraft in the market?

In the greater scheme of things, I continue to believe that if Boeing had built a new 737 replacement, it would have ultimately won The Single Aisle Wars for a decade or more.  They would have sacrificed some sales today but . . . I think they would have cemented dominance in that market for years to come.

Sadly, that didn’t happen.

Airbus has been making the right calls lately and I think they’ve done a great job in estimating what the market wants as well as being willing to step forward and build what the market wants.  Boeing hasn’t shown much courage.

Yet, I think it will be Boeing who builds that next aircraft.  I think Airbus will focus on its A320NEO and I think their next project will be an A330NEO and they still have considerable work to finish on the A350 series aircraft.

Boeing has the 787-10 to complete which will be an unsatisfying derivative instead of a hit (it won’t have enough range/payload to really attract customers to it, in my opinion).  Nonetheless, the 787-10 will be pretty easy to bring to market.  They have the 737MAX to get done and that will be a low risk effort as well.  The 777-8/9 will also be a fairly low risk aircraft, too.

Boeing has all low risk programs with everything getting to market by 2020.   By 2020, Boeing will have realized that the 737MAX isn’t quite making it for the single aisle airlines.  To remain in business and truly engage with the airlines of the world, Boeing will have to commit to a new 737 replacement and it will have to push the envelope pretty far.

I believe that 737 replacement will start at about the 160 seat capacity (standard 2 class) and run up to 210 to 220 seat capacity.  I think all variants will have trans-continental range and I believe that at least the top two variants will have intercontinental range with ETOPS at introduction.

I do think there will be 3 variants but I also suspect many will speculate that there will be 4 variants.  My expectation will be:

Variant 1:  150 – 160 seats, 3600nm range

Variant 2:  180 – 190 seats, 4200nm range

Variant 3:  210-220 seats, 4200nm range

I think we’ll see a geared turbo fan a la Rolls Royce on the aircraft or a Pratt & Whitney engine.  What I don’t think we’ll see is a CFM engine.  The CFM design isn’t going to make the leap into the next generation.  It held up for the NEO and MAX but only barely.  The Pratt & Whitney is more likely the future.

What else will be different?  The fuselage will not be metal although it likely won’t be like the 787 either.  The wing will be much more efficient and the cockpit will be harmonious with the 787 and the 777-8/9.

What it won’t be is a 757.  As much as everyone hopes for another overpowered 757 to show up, it won’t be that.  Instead, it will be an aicraft uniquely designed to answer a question for 20 or more years.  It might look like a 757 but its design and requirements will make it entirely different.

But first someone has to blink.

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Yak- 242

October 27, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | 2 Comments

The airliner being developed in Russia and branded as the Irkut MS-21 is a Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 competitor.  Well, in theory anyway.  The airliner is being developed to fit into the same capacity / range of those two product lines but it is a long haul and who knows if the airliner will ever be truly launched into production.

The Yak-42 was a three engine rough runway, t-tail design built in the hundreds by Russia during the Soviet Era.  For a Soviet aircraft, it was a pretty good airplane.  It resembled a 727 and had roughly the same capacity of a 717-200.

The actual progression was Yak-40 (a regional 3 engine airliner capable of rough fields and carrying about 40 people), then the Yak-42 and a Yak-46 and Yak-242 were conceived and even went through design exercises before being cancelled.

Now they want to change the name to the defunct Yak-242 and allege that the MS-21 is derived from that study.  It’s a branding thing.

The problem is that the Yak has no positive brand image anywhere but in Russia.  No one thinks of the Yak-42 and says “Yeah, they should built something like that again.”  Calling the airliner Irkut MS-21 put distance between it and every other bad experience made in Russia.

But Russia clings to things and in this case it’s going to cling to the name Yak and believe that that name is going to win.

It won’t but that may be moot anyway as it remains to be seen whether or not Russia can build an airliner that interests the world.  So far, the Sukhoi Superjet ain’t.

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Boeing loses startups

October 24, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fleets | 1 Comment

It often bothers me that Boeing never seems willing to buy into a start up airline.  Airbus has had to make it its business to go to these startups in hopes that they’ll gain market share incrementally.

But Boeing always seems to want to see a strong balance sheet and a track record before truly making a good deal to an airline.  On the surface, this seems smart but in reality, I think Boeing is slowly ceding sales to more and more airlines as a result.

A leveraged business, particularly in the airline industry, is a very common thing these days.

Most recently, VivaAerobus has been operating a fleet of 737-300 aircraft (20) and it just inked a deal with Airbus to buy A320 aircraft to replace those 737s and to expand with.

How do you let an airline operating your airliner successfully get away like that?

You treat them the way Boeing does.  They’re not big, they’re not the best financed and they’re the upstart in a highly regulated country.  But Airbus has the sale and Boeing doesn’t despite the fact that Boeing should have actually had the performance advantage on this sale.

It’s my belief that Boeing has trended towards being discriminating with its sales to only larger companies in general.  And I believe this will hurt Boeing more and more in the commercial landscape in the years to come.

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Delta buys Airbus

September 6, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fleets, Airline News | 4 Comments

Delta Airlines has announced an order for some Airbus aircraft and before anyone signals that this is the end of days moment for Boeing . . . relax.

Delta today is comprised of Delta yesterday and Northwest Airlines of yesterday as well.  Northwest Airlines was a big user of Airbus aircraft.  The organization does have a great deal of experience operating Airbus aircraft now.

Furthermore, no airline of Delta’s size can afford to continue to buy from one single supplier and be responsible to both their company as well as their shareholders.

And who says Airbus builds a bad product?  I sure don’t.  Delta has learned that the A330 works very well for them sitting between their 777-200 and 747-400 aircraft.  Part of this order is a “top up” of the A330-300 type to the tune of 10 additional aircraft.  Delta has (10) Airbus A330-200s and (20) Airbus A330-300s already and an additional (10) A330-300 aircraft sounds, to me, like Airbus is growing some capacity at the top end of their fleet.

The A330-300 is their second largest aircraft seating-wise, believe it or not.

And Delta ordered (30) A321 aircraft as well.  This is an airplane that arguably most US based airlines will be buying as it has been identified as a 757 replacement on certain missions.  Given that just 30 of them have been ordered, I suspect that the A321 offers a better replacement than the 737-900ER  in certain missions likely requiring more density rather than range.

No airline can afford to skip Airbus at this point.  Likewise, no airline should skip Boeing either.  Each manufacturer has viable products that can meet needs.  Aircraft manufacturers can no longer offer delivery positions that make it possible to stay in one product family.  Well, not easily anyway.

 

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The start of an era

July 23, 2013 on 12:43 pm | In Airline Fleets | No Comments

American Airlines has taken delivery of its first A320 series aircraft and this is the start of a new era at American Airlines.

The A319 is the first of 260 aircraft ordered and is a “current” engine option A319.  The A319 aircraft will seat 128 passengers (8 in first class, 18 in economy plus and 102 in economy) and actually presents the start of a second era at American Airlines too.

It’s been a very long time since American Airlines had aircraft that seated so few passengers.  The last aircraft with a passenger count below that of the MD-82 was the Fokker 100 (88 seats and retired in 2004).

The A319 is counted as an MD-80 replacement in the AA fleet but I think differently.  I think it augments the airline’s fleet and offers opportunities for “thin” routes that AA has been neglecting for a while now.  The A319 may replace some MD-80′s but it will also change the opportunity equation considerably.

I have just one request for the airline:  Will someone please kill that horrific airline livery already?

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Question: Why are airliners all looking alike now?

July 1, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Trivia | 1 Comment

I received a back channel question asking why all airliners are looking so alike now.

What the person was referring to was the fact that an A320 and B737 look, to the layman, almost exactly alike as do the medium and large widebody aircraft.  It’s true, the Airbus A330 is hard to distinguish from the Boeing 777/767 series aircraft too.

The only semi-distinguishable aircraft out there are the Airbus A340 (production has stopped), the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380.

But the question is why.

The answer is aerodynamics.  As manufacturers strive to gain more and more efficiency out of their aircraft, their aircraft start to look more and more alike.

Simply put, it’s about function over form.  When you design one of these aircraft, you don’t “style” it with something that goes against the aerodynamics of the airframe because such a thing could literally cost the user millions in fuel costs over the life of the airplane.

So, today, we have the Embraer E170/190 which looks a lot like how the Bombardier CS100/CS300 will look  which looks a lot like the Airbus A320 series which in turn looks a lot like the Boeing 737 series.  Because that shape works, we have the Airbus A300 which looks a lot like the Boeing 757/767 which looks a lot like the Airbus A330/A340 which looks a lot like the Boeing 777 which looks a lot like the upcoming A350 which also looks like the Boeing 787.

They all basically look alike with some slight differences and that is completely driven by aerodynamic efficiency.

It’s notable that the “odd ball” aircraft do not really survive past a single generation and don’t show up anymore.  The 727 was out of the ordinary with Boeing and its T-tail configuration was only ever used once by them.  The DC-10/MD-11 3-engine weirdness didn’t really last that long either.  The DC-10 did but the MD-11 died a quick death.  In fact, it’s notable that the MD-11 mostly died in popularity because it didn’t meet efficiency promises.

Oddballs don’t survive very long and those that do survive are driven in their function by physics.

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New Aircraft May Spell New Competition

June 25, 2013 on 12:27 pm | In Airline Fleets | No Comments

Around the world, airlines are making record setting orders for new narrowbody aircraft.  We airlines in Southeast Asia and Europe being particularly aggressive while here in the United States airlines are far less so (even American Airlines who desperately needed a new fleet.)

In the United States, most of these orders are being made to replace modest portions of fleets that are nearing the outer limits of age.  100 737s for Delta Airlines just means that old aircraft get replaced with new aircraft.  No real change in fleet size.

Now, many US airlines are modestly upgauging their fleets with slightly larger aircraft.  An A319 buyer is going to the A320.  A 737-700 user goes with a 737-800.  This capacity growth amounts to just meeting organic growth in a modest economy such as the United States.

However, in Europe and Southeast Asia, I suspect something else is going 0n.  Some airlines will use some portion of their order to replace their oldest aircraft (Ryanair and easyJet) but I think the vast portion of their orders are going to go towards growth.

In Europe, I think we will see another fare bloodbath before things settle.  This won’t be just between Ryanair and Easyjet either.  Expect all the other low cost European carriers to be involved.  Norwegian, Germanwings, Air Berlin and Monarch all come to mind as airlines that are likely to be affected by a battle.

In Southeast Asia, the competition is already massive with prices already about as low as they should go with airlines planning double digit growth for multiple years.  Someone and something has to give here.  Yes, low cost carriers in this region are revolutionizing travel but they’re also often operating at a loss for marketshare.  Does this sound familiar?

I expect we will see one or more airlines in this region go bankrupt and I have in mind one particular entity:  Lion Air.

Economic growth in Southeast Asia doesn’t occur at all societal levels and that kind of airline growth isn’t sustainable in that region.  Someone will go out of business or will go bankrupt.  Bet on it.

 

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The Paris Air Show Order Games

June 18, 2013 on 12:58 pm | In Airline Fleets | No Comments

The order games have begun at the Paris Air Show and there is one takeaway you should absolutely get from it:

It means absolutely nothing.  For at least this year.

Both Boeing and Airbus will land orders, cry out in joy that they won this customer or that but the status quo will largely be maintained.

Airbus will engage in its silly and, in fact, already has by announcing an order for 20 A380 aircraft by Doric Leasing.  Until proven otherwise, this feels like a silly order by a company who isn’t a “name” in aircraft leasing and who perhaps doesn’t understand just how limited the use of the A380 is for most airlines.  Without a few airlines named as taking up these aircraft, I’m not sure I believe the order.

Boeing has announced its easiest order ever for this year:  GECAS is ordering 10 787-10 aircraft.

Also notable is EasyJet who has ordered 135 A320 aircraft (35 CEO aircraft and 100 NEO aircraft) and it’s notable because I think Boeing might have been able to win this on price.  Yet it appears Boeing wasn’t even trying to contend.

And Boeing has officially launched its 787-10 with United Airlines being the US launch partner with an order for 20 of the aircraft.  Other “launch partners” are British Airways (an order for 10) and Singapore Airlines (an order for 10).

This won’t be a year of shock and awe and I suspect many will be glad for it as the industry has had enough shock and awe over the past few years to last quite a while.

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Hawaiian Airlines and the A321NEO

January 14, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service | No Comments

Hawaiian Airlines has made an order for the A321NEO which, I think, causes trouble for Boeing.  It’s a validation of the A321 as a 757 replacement that, I think, Boeing didn’t need showing up given its desire to sell the 737MAX-9.  It is increasingly clear that the new A321 isn’t going to be the dog that the current A321 has been.  Good on Airbus.

Hawaiian is clearly going to make trouble for a couple of airlines with this purchase.  The first is Alaska Airlines.  When Hawaiian takes delivery, it can start to compete with Alaska on the smaller routes such as Bellingham to Hawaii.  Hawaiian succeeds quite well in this area when it goes up against other airlines with its Airbus A330 and Boeing 767 aircraft.  It knows how to attract the right passengers at the right fares.

The other airline that, I think, will be a surprise to some is Southwest.  It’s clear that Southwest has been eyeing the Hawaiian markets for some time and it has even talked about its need to gain ETOPS experience in order to do this.  I think Hawaiian is responding to this threat by bringing its games to the kinds of markets Southwest might be tempted to enter.

And that brings me to a criticism I have for Southwest:  This airline isn’t responding in a very agile way to opening up new markets and opportunities.  By the time it studies and prepares for new flying outside its comfort zone, the opportunity is often gone.  Witness its vaunted codeshare deal with WestJet and Volaris as more evidence.  Southwest could have been flying those Hawaiian routes as soon as this year but the conventional wisdom is that Southwest won’t have itself ready for this challenge until 2015 or about 2 or more years from now.

2 years is an eternity in the airline business.

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Spirit Airlines blames ground accident on ATC

January 4, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

Spirit Airlines is blaming a collision between an A320 of its own and a US Airways A320 parked on a remote ramp in Ft. Lauderdale on New Year’s Eve.  Spirit says its pilots weren’t warned of the aircraft being parked there.

I have a somewhat grudging admiration for how Spirit manages its PR in these situations.  They are the teenage kid who says outrageous things and denies responsibility for problems it does cause.

But let’s take note of a few facts.  First, ATC isn’t responsible for warning taxiing aircraft of properly parked aircraft on ramps.

Second, pilots and most specifically the captain, are responsible for watching where they are taxiing their aircraft.   In this case, the Spirit aircraft didn’t back into the aircraft, it struck the tail of the US Airways aircraft as it was passing by.  It’s true that care has to be exercised when taxiing on ramps but it is the responsibility of the taxiing aircraft to pay attention to its surroundings.

Third, LiveATC.net has captured audio of another Spirit aircraft warning of tight quarters just before the collision.

Look, it’s an accident and it probably isn’t one bit funny to US Airways whose aircraft suffered significant damage.  But these things do happen and this one probably didn’t happen because the Spirit captain wasn’t paying attention.  It isn’t easy to taxi these aircraft and there is a reason why the captain is made responsible for this duty.

Blaming it on air traffic control is just silly, however.

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Allegiant Adds A319s

August 1, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fleets | No Comments

Allegiant Airlines has announced that it will be acquiring up to 19 Airbus A319 aircraft via lease and/or purchase and it expects the first aircraft to enter the fleet in the 2nd quarter of 2013.  Allegiant presently operates a large fleet of very used MD-80 aircraft and recently began flying 757 aircraft as a small sub-fleet to support overwater, long distance routes.

The A319 will support growth initially and represent an aircraft that matches seat count for the MD-80 while offering far greater range.  Range will equate to growth opportunities at Allegiant.

Allegiant believes that the changing market for used A319 aircraft now matches what they originally found for the MD-80 as they began as an airline.   It’s true that the A319 has never been a very popular aircraft in general and is on a downward slide presently.  Major airlines prefer the A320 and A321 which offer vastly superior seat costs.  The 737-700, the A319′s competitor, is also seeing a downward slide in value although not nearly as great.

Rather than be alarmed at Allegiant’s adding a new aircraft type, I would suggest that this is good news all around.  Allegiant will benefit from far better seat economics and will be able to obtain aircraft much easier on an on-going basis.  I fully expect that they’ll look for other good deals on A319s to replace their MD-80 aircraft.

Rather than put them at a disadvantage, I expect that this will allow Allegiant to compete even more aggressively against Low Cost Carriers (Southwest, JetBlue) as well as Ultra Low Cost Carriers (Spirit who already uses the Airbus A319 and A320).

Don’t expect a more comfortable aircraft.  Allegiant will cram as a many seats possible onto this aircraft.  Expect roughly 150 seats and compare that to US Airways’ A319s which have 2 class seating for a total of 124 seats or United Airlines’ A319s which have 3 class seating for a total of 120 seats.  Allegiant notes that it might be able to fit more than 150 seats if an additional overwing exit is added.   Spirit’s A319s have 145 seats with a seat pitch of about 30″ so I expect that Allegiant is planning on a 29″ seat pitch and that is not a comfortable seat in the United States.

It’s a good purchase for Allegiant and signals the direction that residual lease values will have on both A319/A320 as well as 737-700/800 aircraft as the A320NEO series and 737MAX series get ordered by major legacy airlines.  This is exactly what lessors didn’t want to see happen to the aircraft they hold but it was largely unavoidable and particularly so when one sees major airlines upsizing their aircraft considerably.

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Airbus in the US

July 5, 2012 on 11:45 am | In Uncategorized | No Comments

There has been quite  a lot of publicity over Airbus’ decision to build an A320 final assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama, the same location it planned to use for an A330 tanker conversion site.  Pro Boeing people decry the decision as silly and pro Airbus people see it as Airbus gaining on Boeing.

I see it as neither.  Airbus building A320s in the United States isn’t going to help it sell aircraft from the “made in the USA” perspective.  Airlines are businesses and its customers here in the US long since gave up caring whether or not they were on an Airbus or Boeing with aviation fans being the incredibly tiny exception.

It might help a tiny bit in that Airbus may be able to open some production slots for airlines that want aircraft sooner than later.  However, that could just as easily be realized from one or two airlines deferring or cancelling orders over the next year.

It does help Airbus with profits as these aircraft will be dollar denominated aircraft but we’re only talking about an initial production rate of 4 aircraft per month . . . not a lot to realize here.  And should Airbus need to slow production, guess who is likely to be the first to shut down?  Yes, Alabama.  Labor laws in that state will make it far easier for Airbus to shut down a US based plan than one in Europe.  Their plant in China is politically driven and therefore likely to stick around despite the fact that it, at best, operates at a break even point rather than as a profitable enterprise.

Is it treading on Boeing turf?  No, not really.  Boeing needs to focus on its customers and keep its eye on the ball when it comes to delivering aircraft on time.  Reacting to this move by Airbus is just silly.

Does Boeing need to build elsewhere?  Again, no, not really.  They have their production figured out and while it may prove to be smart one day to move some production off-shore, they have a handle on their needs at present and there is no driving need to search elsewhere.  Besides, they have moved their production “off shore”.  They started an assembly line in South Carolina.

I don’t think Airbus has made a mistake but I also don’t see this as giving them any real advantage in the marketplace and only a tiny lift on profits which Airbus could stand to realize.

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China’s threat to Boeing and Airbus

June 13, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Periodically it’s fun for mainstream media to hype the Chinese threat to Boeing and Airbus in the coming years. Irresponsible people point to the homegrown aircraft the ARJ-21 and the coming Comac C919 as evidence of this.

There are a few problems with this. First, the ARJ-21 really isn’t quite 100% homegrown. It is a regional jet based on tooling that China had from its assembly of the MD-90 aircraft. It’s wing was designed by Antonov and it’s cabin cross section, nose and tail are identifical to the DC-9 series.

Second, this aircraft hasn’t proven all that ready for real use. The wing designed failed stress testing thus limiting flight test envelopes at the direction of the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority. There are some reports that this jet is not particularly light for the mission conceived of for it and it isn’t being designed to be exactly a leap ahead of existing regional jets that not only do the job as well or better but which have far superior support in the world (Embraer E Jets and Bombardier C-700/900/1000).

It’s likely that the ARJ-21 will enter into service and find itself wholly irrelevant.

The same fate is likely for the Comac 919. This is a paper aircraft conceived as a competitor to the Airbus A320 series and Boeing 737 series aircraft. The C919 will use a CFM LeapX engine and is targeted to have a range that is significantly less than current Airbus and Boeing models have much less the new A320NEO and 737MAX aircraft. I already smell trouble here.

Comac is using technologies from avionics companies and engine manufacturers but lacks experience at integration and production that make such an airliner possible on a commercial basis. In many respects, for such an airliner to gain credibility in the marketplace, it almost has to be better than A320NEO and 737MAX offerings and it isn’t. Not on paper and certainly not in real world performance. It’s sub-par in every way.

The belief that a superior price will win over airlines is wrong. That superior price is unlikely to be less than what aircraft manufacturers are already offering airlines making large orders and price is only one component of acquisition. Other things involved are its cost to operate, cost to maintain and support from the manufacturer. The Comac 919 is not going to meet or beat either Airbus or Boeing in these areas.

So why would any airline buy such an aircraft? Because the Chinese government told them to, that’s why. It has orders but they come from Chinese airlines and in exceptionally small quantities.

Until China takes on a project that it can achieve integration and competitive operating economics on, it won’t learn how to build a major airliner. The idea that a chinese competitor arrives in the market place even in 2020 is silly. At this point, one could use a crystal ball and guess. My guess is that it is 2030 or beyond and by that point we’ll see Boeing and Airbus offering hyper-efficient new airliners that raise the stakes even higher. 2030 seems a long way off but it is only 18 years away. Look how long it took Airbus to gain marketplace traction with its product line under what were arguably far superior conditions compared to Comac’s. When you do, even 2030 seems awfully optimistic. It could happen but I, personally, wouldn’t bet money on it.

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737MAX is getting real

April 11, 2012 on 9:02 pm | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Boeing has revealed more details on its definition for the 737MAX now and one significant revelation is the decision to add 8 inches to the nose gear.  This was the tough choice engineering wise.

A new pylon and strut for engines will be used in the style of the 787 and the rear tail cone will be extended and the area above the elevator thickened to improve aerodynamics.  Electronic bleed air will be added to improve cabin pressurization (which is much like how the A350 will use bleed air)and better means more efficient fuel burn.

Airbus boxed Boeing into this aircraft by introducing the A320NEO.  I firmly believe that Boeing was leaning towards a new aircraft but also needed time and space to get where it needed to be with that aircraft.  Airbus’ introduction of the NEO made it much more imperative to deliver more efficiency now rather than a decade later.

But with the decision made, I also have to credit Boeing for appearing to have decided to go all in.  They are working very, very hard to bring as much advantage as possible to the single aisle wars with Airbus.

Some perceive that Boeing has been slow to release details and I understand that perception but the truth is that American Airlines’ order last summer forced their hand into a premature announcement.  Had they not had to make that announcement, these new details would seem very much on time.

Most believe that the status quo between the two manufacturers will be maintained.  It is thought that Boeing will have a slight advantage that, according to many, will remain about 2% better than Airbus.

I have a feeling that Boeing might be aiming higher.  I don’t think the decisions they are now announcing about this aircraft reflect a company that is struggling to maintain the status quo in the marketplace.  They appear to be working very hard to make every gain possible against their competitors to bring even more to the table.

Why do I think so?  Because these changes add more risk to their ability to deliver this aircraft in 2017.   If there is one thing Boeing knows, it’s that they cannot afford to damage their credibility with airlines further with a late arrival of the 737MAX.  This is not an all new aircraft with all new materials and airlines will expect it on time or early.

This won’t be revealed a la One Big Announcement John Leahy Style.  Boeing will simply add more and more substantiation to their claims as they continue discussions with airlines.  At the end of the day, most airlines prefer to see results over having a grand announcement.

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Airbus and Boeing need to sell

March 8, 2012 on 4:40 pm | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

A number of analysts have noted that the real goal for Airbus this next year is to sell production slots that are open for current A320 aircraft up to and including EIS for the A320NEO aircraft.  Both Boeing and Airbus need to find ways to preserve value on existing aircraft lines until their new generation aircraft enter into service as well.

It’s a delicate line they each walk.  You want to satisfy airlines with new aircraft but some of those who buy aircraft are lessors and you don’t want to anger them by depreciating their assets they already hold.  And a market glut of aircraft can result in depreciating demand for your new generation aircraft because the capital costs for current generation aircraft can become low enough to make sense for airlines to buy and use.

A good example of that last part is Delta buying more and more MD-90 aircraft.  The capital costs are low compared to current Boeing aircraft and the airliner provides close to current Boeing efficiencies. 

Both manufacturers know that their order books are soft.  Both know that some who have ordered both current and next generation aircraft aren’t necessarily going to be around to take delivery on those aircraft 5 years from now.  One great example is Lion Airways order from Boeing.   The dirty secret about that order is that Lion isn’t an airline with significant risk both in operations and financially. 

Airbus need to work hard getting their current production sold until their aircraft are in place but without depreciating values and without massive discounts to encourage orders.  It’s a tall order and a difficult challenge for both manufacturers.

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Welcome to the New Year – Part 2

January 3, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | 2 Comments

World Alliances

I’m not sure we’ll see much in this territory for SkyTeam or Star Alliance.  They’ll continue to succeed and be smart in their attempts to gain more dominance in more parts of the world.  I think Oneworld is going to be smarting through this next year as a function of health problems at founding members American Airlines and QANTAS.  I also think that gaining the LATAM membership is not nearly as “sure” as they think it is. 

The Middle East

After ordering an insane amount of widebodies in 2011, Emirates will order another insane amount of widebody aircraft and beat up on Boeing about its 747-8i.  This has begun to feel like an addiction problem.

India

The airline industry in India has imploded and we’re just watching the mushroom cloud of debris settle.  For 2012, more explosions and more governmental heads will push even deeper into the sand.   Air India has already become the new Alitalia.

The Far East

Chinese airlines will order more aircraft and I expect we’ll see orders from them for 777s and A380s and possibly some A350s.  Not unlike 2011.  I don’t think we’ll hear about any stunning orders from that part of the world, however. 

China will tout its COMAC C919 even harder and most of us will try desperately to keep from laughing even harder.  Ryanair will back away from this aircraft quietly, I think. 

Japan will find ANA deploying more and more 787s on more and more routes with more and more success with that aircraft.  JAL will take delivery of its 787s and find that they not only work well for JALs needs but actually exceed expectations.  I think we’ll see an order for some more Boeing aircraft from JAL this year and I think it will be the 737MAX and 777-300ER.  No huge numbers but large enough to make a splash.

South America

LATAM got its approval from Brazilian and Chilean authorities (barely) and LATAM will begin consolidating its operations to make more money.  I think we’ll see a largish order from LATAM and it will be for an airliner to replace aircraft on both the Brazilian and Chilean side of the airline.   The aircraft of choice will be, I think, the Airbus A320NEO and I think they’ll bump up orders for the 787 and 777 as well.   TAM has 27 A350-900s ordered and I think that order *might* be at risk.  The strategy of using Airbus for narrow bodies and Boeing for wide bodies seems to be a smart one for airlines in that region.

I don’t think we’ll see more consolidation in South America but I do see South America becoming a bit of a battle ground between airline alliances.  Most see LATAM going with Oneworld and while I can’t disagree with the arguments, I think that SkyTeam and/or Star Alliance might just swoop in with one hell of a package that may be too hard to resist.  If this happens, Oneworld and American Airlines gets kicked in the groin in South America.

Aerolineas Argentinas?  The Alitalia of South America in 2011 and the same in 2012.  Enough said.

Europe:

British Airways managed to get through 2011 without any huge problems and saw Willie Walsh move up to the CEO position of International Airlines Group which means Willie’s still in charge.  Iberia, British Airways’ sister airline, saw Willie stirring things up with plans for a LCC subsidiary.  Iberia pilots decided to strike because shooting onself in the foot can’t be just an Indian thing.   IAG also managed to get a tentative deal to buy BMI from Lufthansa and become the Emperor of slots at London Heathrow . . . maybe.

Virgin Atlantic didn’t die, didn’t find new partners and didn’t extricate itself from the chokehold that Singapore Airlines has on it.  Richard Branson actually didn’t make the news very often except to shout, stamp his feet and act insulted that Virgin Atlantic wasn’t able to do a deal to win BMI.  Expect Virgin Atlantic aircraft to start carrying some message against the IAG deal for BMI.  I actually think that Virgin Atlantic will have to find an airline alliance to join and if I’m right, I would lay very heavy odds on it being the Star Alliance. 

Lufthansa did itself a favor and got rid of BMI and I expect they’ll continue their very conservative mangement of the airline and the subsidiary airlines.  I do wonder how much longer Lufthansa can rely upon its A340 aircraft and somewhat expect Lufthansa to bite the bullet and buy the 777.

KLM/Air France:  I see nothing here at all.  Not in 2012.  I don’t expect a large widebody order nor a narrowbody order. 

I do expect Ryanair to make an order and I do think it will be the 737MAX.  In fact, I think it may well end up being the 737MAX-9 instead of the 737MAX-8.  Instead of repudiating the C919, Michael O’Leary will just quit talking about it.  Instead, he’ll suggest stripper poles could be installed on Ryanair aircraft. 

All in all, I think it will be a tough year for European airlines.  The financial crisis on that continent will make it very hard to earn an honest profit and Middle Eastern airlines will continue to erode the long haul traffic that European airlines have enjoyed for decades.

Tomorrow, a summary of what I see for 2012 and the world airline industry.

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Welcome to the New Year – Part 1

January 2, 2012 on 10:31 am | In Airline News | No Comments

Over the past 12 months, FlyingColors has doubled its readership and has seen nearly 1000 blog entries reached with enough words written to equal a book with over 1700 pages.  But enough about me, let’s look at the last year in the airline world.

North America:

Southwest Airlines did its deal with Airtran and bought itself an Atlanta base of operations and some very valuable landing slots at Northeastern airports.  As if that wasn’t enough, it made a firm deal on a bunch of 737MAX aircraft and agreed to take on even more 737-800 aircraft for its routes.  However, the airline wasn’t without some trouble:  Airtran pilots tried real hard to step on their on feet in a seniority deal with Southwest Airline pilots.

American Airlines struggled (more) and lost more than a Billion dollars (again).  Instead of making any real progress with its labor force, it decided to file bankruptcy but not before having made a historic order for aircraft from both Airbus and Boeing for the A320 and 737 series aircraft (with both A320, A320NEO, 737 and 737MAX in the mix).  2011 also saw long term CEO Gerard Arpey depart the company (to work with former Continental CEO Larry Kellner) and AA President Tom Horton took over.

Virgin America has horned in on American’s routes, Frontier has struggled more and more under Republic Airways leadership and US Airways still doesn’t have pilots or flight attendants integrated onto one seniority list.  JetBlue decided to fly more to the Caribbean, entrench itself even more at JFK airport and blew it during an October snowstorm (again).    United and Delta made money.  Quite a bit actually.

I think we’ll see Frontier either spun off rapidly in 2012 or the rapid decline of the airline necessitating bankruptcy of Republic Airways.  I don’t see a real strong suitor for Frontier except, perhaps, JetBlue but since Frontier isn’t based at JFK airport, I do wonder at JetBlue interest in an airline like Frontier.

I think we’ll see Alaska Airlines find even more odd partners for its success and still manage to cozy up close to Delta while doing it.  Southwest will start painting Airtran aircraft in its colors and operating even more great deals to more places from Atlanta but I also think that if any slots at JFK, LGA, EWR, IAD or DCA come available for purchase, Southwest will bid the cost of a Boeing and lose again.

I think it’s possible that Virgin America will make money in 2012 and I think it is really possible that we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by that.  The determining factor?  Cost of fuel. 

United will order a nice chunk of aircraft and I’ll bet that it will be an order similar in mix to the American Airlines order from both Airbus and Boeing.  However, I do not think it will be similar in size.  I think it will be a partial fleet replacement with lots of options for incremental change in the fleet.

I think Delta will continue to make a big pile of money with very little controversy surrounding it except that I think Delta will look for and execute a plan to encroach on more Legacy and SuperLegacy airline routes as it has announced its intention to do so from La Guardia Airport.   I also think that Delta will decide its not afraid of Southwest and it will decide to give Southwest a taste of bullying it hasn’t experienced before.   Particularly in Atlanta.  It’s not just an opportunity for Southwest to succeed in Atlanta but it is also an opportunity for Delta to capture lost customers.

I think we’ll see capacity restraint for another year and higher air fares than seen in a long, long time.  I do not expect to see another new airline show up and I think we may well see one true LCC depart the picture if things get particularly rough with respect to fuel prices or competition.  Milwaukee will become the regional airport it was intended to be instead of a bloody battleground between LCC airlines.

Tomorrow:  The rest of the world

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Now it’s United

November 29, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fleets | No Comments

Now we see some rumour developing that United Airlines is in talks to make a 200 aircraft single aisle purchase.  This has credence due to the fact that United has about 200 aircraft that are some of the oldest around (these are 757s and 737s mostly from the original United Airlines) and those aircraft are likely having a real impact on the bottom line as a result of fuel costs and maintenance.

I think we’ll see an order and I suspect that order may well go all to Boeing.  It may be named United but it is run by Continental executives now and those executives have found ways to effectively use the 737 on their routes.  Furthermore, I think Boeing may be able to offer earlier delivery positions than Airbus can.

What might we see?  I would look for a sizeable portion to be 737-900ER aircraft with some 737-800s.  In addition, I think we may well see a follow on order for the 737MAX aircraft again in the -800/-900 configurations. 

The current fleet of Airbus A319s are “good enough” and while some of the A320 aircraft are getting older now, they aren’t quite old enought to start planning retirement of until those older 737-500 and 757-200 aircraft are replaced.   About 1/3 of the A320s were delivered in the mid 1990s with the balance showing up from around 2000 and on.  Almost all of the A319s arrived in the early 2000s.  There is maneuvering room left with those fleets.

Airbus will want to keep United but I think they’ll struggle to offering the delivery positions that United will need.  Those positions are needed now and over the next 7 to 10 years.  Airbus has sold most of those positions.  The only way to offer early positions is to increase production even more.

And both Boeing and Airbus are struggling to figure out how to increase their production beyond their plans for production rates that will already be historic for commercial airliners.  It would require another production line and even more suppliers for airliners that are now fairly obsolete in light of the A320NEO and 737MAX.

Look for an order announcement in the next 1 to 3 months and my bet is on a 200 to 250 aircraft order of 737s with about 100 of those coming from the 737MAX line.

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A319s and A321s chosen by American Airlines

November 24, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fleets | No Comments

American Airlines has chosen to receive Airbus A319 aircraft and A321 aircraft in its first round of deliveries from Airbus as a result of this summer’s order.  So far, it isn’t know how many of each will be received. 

The A319 choice surprised me somewhat.  Some speculated it would be ordered as a gap filler between AA’s 160 seat 737-800 and its largest regional jet, the CRJ-700 which has about 65 seats.  AA’s MD-80 aircraft are configured with 140 seats.  The A319, in American Airlines configuration, should have about 126 seats based on my research into how other SuperLegacy airlines are using the aircraft.  Delta has 126 seats on its A319s, United has 120 seats (but with Economy Plus in the mix) and US Airways has 124 seats.  I expect American to meet or beat Delta’s seat count. 

I myself didn’t expect the A319 to be selected because it is heavier aircraft and the costs to operate it are similar to the A320 much as what has developed between the 737-700 and the -800 on the Boeing side.  I actually thought that something such as the CSeries might get considered as that gap filler.  The A319 offers a bit more flexibility on payload and range but the CSeries would offer better trip costs most likely. 

Unlike many, I don’t regard the CSeries as a program that will fail.

The A321 was the no-brainer.  It will fill the 757-200 role nicely on most domestic routes.  I would expect these to be configured with about 185 seats on anything but specially configured international aircraft.  US Airways has 183 seats on its A321 aircraft but, again, I expect American Airlines to beat that number by a few seats.   Current American Airlines 757-200 aircraft have 182 or 189 seats depending on the mission its configured for.  I expect we’ll see something close to 189 seats for AA’s A321s with the remaining 757-200s to be reconfigured for those long, thin trans-continental and trans-Atlantic flights. 

But here is the real surprise for me:  The A319s will have CFM engines and the A321s will have IAE V2500 engines.   While you can choose from either manufacturer on both airframes, American has decided that commonality is trumped by mission performance evidently.  Again, I would have expected American to probably go with CFM on both airframes if only because they do have some experience with the engines as a function of owning the 737-800. 

However, the IAE is reportedly the better performer for longer duration flights and it would appear that the planners at American would prefer to optimize performance of the aircraft according to its expected mission as opposed to reduce costs by having a common engine family.  Contrary to what some may think, I think that’s the right decision.  SuperLegacy airlines will own enough of an aircraft/engine family to enjoy economies of scale and it is no longer necessary to try to maximize cost benefits by sticking to one aircraft type and one engine.

In other words, buy the aircraft and engine that best fits the expected mission should be the purchase strategy we’ll see not only from American Airlines but other SuperLegacy airlines as well.

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Is Fuel A Threat?

November 10, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fleets | 2 Comments

Every airline reporting on its quarterly financial performance last month cited fuel as a major impact to their bottom line.  Airlines saw significantly higher fuel prices this year compared to 2010 and it’s true that it’s a hit to profits.

On the other hand, it’s notable that fuel hedging contributed significantly to their losses on paper.  Why?  Because fuel prices did not go up high enough for those fuel hedges to provide benefit.  Instead, they went down.

The truth is, it isn’t high fuel prices that are killing airlines.  It’s the price volatility that hurts them.  Airlines haven’t been able to plan their costs very effectively for the past 3 years.  Hedging is supposed to “smooth” that volatility and it will except that it also causes paper losses which reflect negatively on the airline when it announces its financial performance.

Is it necessary?  I used to think so.  In fact, I was a big advocate of fuel hedging not because of the windfall profits it provided many airlines for many years but, rather, because it really did make costs stable.  US Airways has stopped fuel hedging and their financial results show that fuel hedging just may not be necessary anymore.  Their profits are not taking a hit from hedging contracts that “lose” money.

In fact, US Airways performance is exceptional when balanced against the challenges it has.  This is an airline that 6 years later is still effectively operating as two airlines (under one name).  It still doesn’t realize that kind of synergies it needs to from its merger.  It has serious impacts from labor groups who cannot agree on what day it is much less on who represents them with the company (this would be the pilots) and it still doesn’t have a combined seniority list with one agreement in place with both the pilots and the flight attendants. 

This airline also flies from far less popular hubs, contracts with far less ideal regional airlines and has far fewer international flights and even if it could fly more international routes, it lacks the equipment to do so.

But the airlines makes a strong profit.  As strong or stronger than the SuperLegacy airlines.  The one thing it hasn’t done is announce major paper losses as a result of fuel hedging.  It might be time for more airlines to roll with the punches.  It’s a highly complex, risky effort that doesn’t appear to be providing the benefits its supposed to.

Fuel price volatility will continue to be a problem.  Airlines need stable oil prices and, frankly, so do the world economies.  However, let’s not forget that fuel is a problem for *every* airline.  They all enjoy the same problem in this area. 

I expect that we will see airlines focus more and more on fuel economy over the next several years.  We’re already seeing it in some airlines such as American Airlines who has finally realized that if it dumps its MD-80 aircraft, it can not only enjoy double digit improvements in fuel efficiency, it can fly more people as well.  That doesn’t mean that airlines with Next Generation 737s or Airbus A320 series aircraft will be dumping their fleet for new aircraft.  They won’t.

It does mean that we’ll see older aircraft from the 70′s and 80′s going away.  Yes, that means MD-80s but it doesn’t mean MD-90s (which use a far better engine).  The other aircraft it points to are those that many may not have considered. 

The 767-200ER is already clearly a candidate for removal and the 767-300 isn’t far behind it.  These are 1970′s design aircraft and with engines of similar caliber.  There are no more improvements and as fuel climbs, these aircraft become quickly unattractive even when completely paid for.  The 757 is entering into this territory as well.  I would expect that we’ll see a number of these begin to be retired or sold off for cargo work.  Again, these are 1970′s aircraft and while their amazing performance lent them a lease on life, they’ve become very expensive balanced against other aircraft that can perform 90%+ of the same missions.

Say goodbye to the older 737s.  I’m talking about the 737-300/400/500 series aircraft.  These are efficient, for their time, but very inefficient when compared to the latest modesl coming off Boeing’s line.  They had a short extension to their usefulness but you will see these depart rapidly from US based fleets over the next 1 to 3 years. 

The oldest A320 series aircraft are now due for replacement as well.  Some are older than those inefficient 737-300 aircraft and no longer have the fuel efficiency that the latest Airbus offerings possess.  They *seem* like a new aircraft.  I’ll point out that the A320 aircraft started deliveries in the late 1980′s (1988) and several US airlines such as United own some of the oldest models. 

Look for airlines to “upsize” their aircraft.  Southwest is doing this by buying the 737-800.  For a tiny bit more in costs, Southwest can fly significantly more passengers on routes that are seeing enormous demand.  They can make more money for a tiny incremental cost in fuel and one additional flight attendant. 

Finally, buying blocks of the A320NEO and 737MAX will make an airline look smart.  It is universally recognized that while oil prices may one day stabilize, they won’t return to $20/barrel.  The airline with the most fuel efficient aircraft will see an advantage.  That’s why I honestly believe we’ll see a large order from Southwest Airlines for the 737MAX.  It’s a good evolution for the airline and it will continue to fit within its business plan for some time to come. 

Why no orders from Southwest yet?  Because Southwest is one hell of a good negotiator and recognizes that they have power in the simple fact that if Southwest buys the aircraft, it’s an endorsement that everyone will pay attention to.  I expect to see an initial Southwest order for 100 to 200 aircraft sometime in the next 6 months.  Southwest will get its deal and Boeing needs Southwest to stamp approval on the MAX.

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