Saturday, 26 September 2009

What airlines go for an all wide-body fleet?

Photo: Japan Airlines Boeing 747 taking off, by Yamaguchi Yoshiaki from Japan under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License.

The typical European or American network carrier has a mix of narrow and wide-body aircraft. The goal is to serve an heterogeneous mix of destinations, long and short haul, that have different densities of traffic. However, there are a few major airlines in the world that have opted for the all wide-body, long haul fleet. In what is their model different with respect to the mixed fleet carriers?

The only European one of the lot, Virgin Atlantic, is a rare bird, it is not a network carrier, but a long haul point to point carrier. It is remarkable that, although it has a network of partner airlines, Virgin Atlantic does not have feeder operations of its own. It is difficult to think of a city other than London that could currently generate enough international traffic to support such business model. Singapore? Dubai? Well, these are different stories...Singapore Airlines and Emirates are actually network carriers, we could call them global network carriers, because, whereas most European network carriers operate a short-haul to long-haul network, these two airlines operate primarily a long-haul to long-haul one, connecting people across continents. A wide-body fleet is a necessity for them, and although they also fly to some destinations that are close to their bases, the savings that arise from having a more homogeneous fleet probably more than compensate for having a long-range plane making short hops. This business model has got a tremendous impulse with the increase in global commerce and international traffic of the last decade, and other airlines, particularly in the Gulf have also gone this way (Etihad of Abu Dhabi, Qatar Airways,...). Building such an intercontinental network requires a huge capital investment (a brand new Airbus A380 can cost up to $275M)...and then you need to fill lots of seats! so it shouldn't come as a surprise that most of the airlines following this model have been set up by investors with deep pockets for whom building a hub is part of a grander economic and financial strategy for their respective territories.

And now we turn our attention to Japan, because to the European observer it is simply amazing to see an entire fleet of jumbos serving only the domestic market. Japan is not a huge country in terms of landmass and it is also well served by an efficient high speed rail network...high population density must have been the main reason behind the fact that some short domestic routes in Japan being served by Boeing 747s, that in other parts of the world would be reserved for the densest long-haul routes. If capacity (some Japanese jumbos can carry up to 550 passengers) is the main factor, why then this model has not been adopted elsewhere in high density routes, for example in China or India or in the busiest European and American routes (London-Amsterdam, Barcelona-Madrid, NY-LA)? Also, and surprisingly enough, no Japanese airline seems to have shown interest in the A380, maybe it has to do with the critical financial situation of Japan Airlines? or with Japanese airlines having a historical preference for Boeing?

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The cabin design revolution

First it was the news that Ryanair and the Chinese airline Spring Airlines were evaluating the use of a sort of "bar stools" in their planes, in order to optimize space use in their aircraft. We can give credit to Ryanair for implementing bold ideas, so we might find them in the planes sooner than many think...but in the meantime other proposals for new cabin lay-outs are coming up. In this article you can see Design Q's idea of short-haul flying. I personally do not like the fact that you would be seating with the window at your back. I know many people do not care about having a window seat but I am probably not alone in finding that watching through the window one of the highlights of any flight, specially when arriving for the first time to certain country or city. This would still be possible with this proposed layout, but I have the impression it will be considerably more uncomfortable than in the classical layout, for example one of the weak points of the, otherwise outstanding, Virgin Upper Class is that the seats are also giving their back to the window, so anyone willing to look through the window must make formidable contortions or resign himself to follow the flight path in the video guide. In any case, and for those interested in this topic, I recommend this interesting New York Times article from 2006.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The retro wave reaches airlines

Attention: this picture was not taken in the late 60s, it is quite recent!
American Airlines Boeing 737-800 Astrojet
Photo by randomduck, available under a Creative Commons license

Retro design that were successful in their days are making a comeback, touching the nostalgic side of many. In recent years we have seen the car industry introduce the retro-looking, although newly designed, Chrysler PT Cruiser, the remake of the legendary Fiat 500 and plans have been unveiled to produce a redesigned East German icon, the Trabant.

The airline industry is not immune to this trend, airline retro bags are already a fashion staple, but now is the airlines themselves that are taking on the idea and adding retro livery designs to their own aircraft. My guess is that it might have something to do with the flying experience becoming increasingly unglamourous, with no-frills becoming the standard, congested airports and air travel becoming more of a routine. Retro livery designs take us back to a time where flying meant, above all, glamour and exclusivity, when people dressed up to board a plane as to highlight that they were among the select few, a time when flying was not a hassle (whenever you are in Washington DC I highly recommend visiting the exhibit about the evolution of air travel at the Smithsonian , where the shifting demographics of air travel are thoroughly explained)

It is probably impossible to evaluate the branding benefits of adding retro liveries, but this move will surely delight scores of planespotters wherever these planes fly to.

Foto: Air France A320 in retro livery, Munich Airport
Photo by spotterjohnsen, available under a Creative Commons license.

American Airlines Boeing 737-800 Astrojet
Photo by randomduck, available under a Creative Commons license.

Lufthansa A321
Photo by Chjab, available under a Creative Commons license.

Continental Boeing 737-900ER at Newark (EWR)
Photo by Slasher-Fun, available under a Creative Commons license.

Foto: Finnair A319 in retro livery, Helsinki Vantaa Airport
Photo by Aku from Helsinki, Finland, available under a Creative Commons license.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Barcelona airport (BCN) or how to cope with simultaneous demand and offer shocks

foto: Terminal 1 by Ricardo Bofill (from Creative Commons)

Barcelona airport got its new terminal last month, almost doubling its capacity overnight, this would be alright was it not for the simultaneous demand and offer shocks the airport is facing.

Although designed in times of double digit growth the new terminal opens when the airport is experiencing its first decrease in passenger numbers in a very long time (-15% in the first quarter of 2009 compared with the same period last year). Europe is in the midst of one of the worst economic crisis in living memory and this would be worrying enough for an airport that relies almost exclusively on short and medium haul traffic, but is even worse when considering that the Spanish economy is among the hardest hit by the crisis. Tourist numbers are plummeting and some airlines have been cutting services (Easyjet has reduced capacity, British Airways is axing its Gatwick services). Other factors are contributing to the fall in numbers, the new high speed train link between Barcelona and Madrid has taken half of the market of the densest and most profitable route from BCN.

The recent merger between Clickair and Vueling, with the resulting company controlled by Iberia, is expect to bring some rationalization on some routes where the two companies had overlapping services. In the long term this might result in a stronger company able to maintain its base at Barcelona (Mr.O'Leary would probably disagree...).

And talking about Ryanair, the offer glut has not prevented Ryanair from opening a new base at Reus (REU), about one hour drive south of the center of Barcelona, to add to its current base at Girona (GRO), about one hour north. It seems that Ryanair is doing well in Barcelona (surely helped by the popularity of the city among the European city-breakers and young travelers). there was even talk of Ryanair eyeing slots at BCN...we do not know whether has there been a firm offer but it seems that the company expected some concessions that Aena was not ready to grant.

There is certainly the concern in certain sectors of Barcelona business and political spheres about BCN becoming an almost exclusively low cost airport. Hence, the takeover of the the troubled airline Spanair, engineered by a Barcelona-based consortium with the support of Catalan institutions, with the objective of making it the "Barcelona airline" (Vueling might also have some claim to the title). The hope is that its membership of Star Alliance will help Barcelona to become an alternative Iberian hub (although smaller than Iberia and Oneworld's at MAD). A challenging task indeed!
The reality in the short term is that Spanair does not have any long range plane in its fleet, so the long haul hub might have to wait, however the recent success of some Star Alliance partners at BCN (like the Singapore Airlines connection) allow for some optimism. Maybe Spanair could be a regional distributor, in the South-West of Europe for its long-haul Star Alliance partners? or will it continue to be a feeder for Lufthansa (a sort of Air Dolomiti)? time will say...the truth is that if it is currently difficult for BCN to become a hub, it has never had it better, since it is the first time that BCN is the base of two airlines of a respectable size.

Therefore, and despite the crisis, I am bullish on the long run prospects of BCN. It is the gateway to a densely populated and relatively rich area, with a diversified economy and some of the top tourist destinations in Europe. The airport itself is very close to the urban center (although could be better connected by public transportation with its hinterland)and there might well be a latent under served demand for direct long haul travel that is currently flowing through other airports (mainly MAD).

The 747s of the image might never materialize (smaller planes like the 787 might stand a better chance at BCN) but as Ryanair has proven at Girona (from nearly 0 regular traffic to 5,5M passengers in just over 5 years) sometimes offer can create its own demand...

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Planespotting at Heathrow T-5

I recently found myself for the very first time at Heathrow's new Terminal 5. The views were very good, as the new modern buildings provide a considerably better view than any than any the old terminals, however, the terminal is totally monopolized by BA, so there was no much variety in the type of planes to be spotted. I have to admit, that the venerable 747 remains a very impressive aircraft though!

Planespotting at Domodedovo

We are at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, after a really intense week, ready to board our British Airways flight to London. While I look through the windows at the waiting lounge I realize what an exciting place for plane spotting can a Russian airport be.

At most Western airports, for example, around 95% of the planes are either Boeing 737 and those of the Airbus 320 family, in airports with a large number of long haul flights, like Heathrow you can also see Boeing 747s and 777s and 767s or Airbus 340s and 330s. But at a Russian airport you can see all of these plus a whole range of old soviet-era planes, new Russian planes and second-hand Western planes. This picture is a great example of the situation of aviation in Russia.

Let's have a closer look: in the foreground an old soviet-era Tupolev 134 of Rossiya Airlines, next to it an Airbus 310 of S7-Sibir Airlines, one of the largest domestic airlines in Russia. The A-310 although not a particularly old model is hard to see in Western airports as it was not as commercially successful as the A-320 and A-330 models. Further away is another S7 plane, an Airbus of the A320 family. Russian airlines have been adding new Boeing and Airbus planes that are progressively replacing the old soviet models.

We can also see 2 planes from Transaero, Russia's second international airline (the first is Aeroflot), a Boeing 767 (right) and a Boeing 747-200 Jumbo (left), two wide-body long range planes that probably transport Russian tourists to resorts in the Mediterranean, that are popular destinations from Domodedovo.
In the background there is a large number of parked planes and, although it is difficult to tell from this picture, they are mostly soviet-built. For example, just behind the tail of the S7 Airbus 310 there is an Ilushyn IL-96, the Russian equivalent to the Airbus 340, of relatively new design, but that has experienced some problems that have prevented it from selling in larger numbers.

In summary, quite an interesting mix, that is probably going to become more homogeneous, as Russian carriers update their fleets, but as the restructured Russian aircraft industry gets back to the market with new models, it might continue to be more diverse than in the West.