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.