Getting the right aircraft for the right routes

Bernie Baldwin

The variety of aircraft capabilities at all sizes is aiding the necessary task of using the optimum sized aircraft.

There is barely anything that airline executives dislike more than seats unsold on flights. The key is to ensure each flight has the optimum number of seats. How to do that was the topic of a panel discussion, “The right aircraft for the right routes”.

Right sizing is not straightforward. airBaltic has taken a single aircraft type – the Airbus A200-300 – and made it the right size for so many different types of routes. So how does that work?

“When I see our turboprops parked, waiting to go back to their lessors, and see an A220 going out with less than 76 passengers, I think I don’t have the right size, because the Q400 had 76 seats and we have 149 seats on the A220,” remarked Martin Gauss, airBaltic’s CEO. “But we took the decision and so far it’s working. The complexity of having only one aircraft is so heavily reduced that for us that is the right decision, but, for other operators, a good mix of turboprops and jets or larger jets or widebodies may suit them better.

“Wizz Air, for example, has A321s. which is the right size for them. For us, it would be too big. Our network would not support flying that 232 seater, but they probably would not be okay flying 40-minute sectors,” Gauss observed.

Yves Renard, head of market intelligence & consulting at Airbus, believes that airlines are “pretty good” at fixing the aircraft sizing for themselves. “In Europe, seaonality is very specific and important for maintenance terms. In summertime, you have all the traffic you want. The question is do you want all that peak traffic, and accept that you’re going to fly less in the winter – or go for less in summer and have lower losses in winter. It’s a big question that airlines have to ask themselves.”

Patrick Baudis, vice-president at Mitsubishi Aero Advisory, agreed that there’s no perfect science, but offered advice on how help might come in the way that economic parameters are approached. “For the last 20 years there was a metric of cost per seat. Unfortunately, the seat is not a paid ticket, it’s the passengers in the seats that are paying the ticket,” he commented.

“The industry has shifted now. Airlines and markets understand that you need to focus on the passenger. If you can afford an A321 all year long and fill that plane with passengers, that’s fine. If not, you need to find the plane that works with your network.

“Airlines realise that markets go up and down. And when it’s down, you lose money,” Baudis added. “So you can see orders coming back to a normal rate. There are more A220s, maybe [E-Jet] E2s, there’s more players like that in the orders.”

This leads to the question of which types to mix. Some choose a midsize single-aisle of the A220/E-Jet E2 type to go with a turboprop; some use narrowbody workhorses – the 737 and A320 families – with a turboprop. For ATR, the challenge is to prove airlines should have a turboprop in their mixed fleet to get the most out of their region’s geography.

“Everything revolves around cost per ASK and profitability,” declared Marta Sabin Miralles De Imperial, market strategy director at ATR. “There’s a balance between suitability and cost-of-fleet. A turboprop is the lowest cost per trip aircraft and has a low operating cost. We’re working on improving the aircraft’s economics on the cost side, but there is a very important revenue side to consider. The right thing to do on thin markets is accommodate capacity. Turboprops are efficient for short-haul sectors and a more sustainable choice.”

Long-time ATR customer Binter moved into dual fleet operations with the Embraer E2. “There is also Widerøe, which now has E2 jets as well as turboprops,” noted Vadims Fokins, sales director–EMEA, Embraer Commercial Aviation. The types are complementary, not competing. The turboprop is more efficient up to 300 nm. After that, it’s really the territory of regional or larger jets.

“We are starting a new generation of turboprop offering good economics, and customer product service. Passengers don’t like to fly longer turboprop routes; it takes longer and has more noise and vibration. To eliminate that we are looking to put the engine on the rear fuselage. We can also bring our double-bubble cross section from the E-Jet to improve the product, although we have not yet decided on specifications.

“ATR will also develop its product. So it will be a win–win situation for everyone,” Fokins explained. “Airlines will get better, more economical products; manufacturers can design something new, which will also be in line with sustainability levels.”

At the top end of the capacity range, widebody usage has seen very big aircraft, the A380 and 747 disappear, with airlines going for A350s and 777/787s. But just below that, market developments look set to make the A321LR and A321XLR key aircraft in the future.

“Already flying the Atlantic, the LR has a lot more potential” Renard agreed. “The XLR will extend the range to 4,700 nm when it enters service around 2023, by which time we’ll hopefully be in recovery (perhaps expansion) mode. You’re going to see, especially on the North Atlantic, something quite impressive happening.”

Baudis picked up the theme with the reminder that Boeing has predicted the market will fragment. “It’s doing that already for transatlantic services. This is good news for airports; there will be more flights from, say, Boston to Milan and these kind of city pairs. We may even be talking about smaller cities,” he said.

airBaltic’s Gauss concurred: “I see the A321XLR as the only aircraft which can do things that today are missing. For example, apart from our Riga–Dubai service, the Baltics are not connected with any long-haul flight to anywhere. With an A321XLR, all Baltic States could have endless destinations in the US, in Asia, and I think that will come.”

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3-5 Feb 2025
Girona, Spain