Are we going to fly smaller? – Covid-19 crisis may accelerate the boost of narrowbody in long-haul flights

Long-haul flights have been historically associated with widebody aircraft. Old narrowbody aircraft generations were not competitive enough regarding costs neither had enough range. However, new generations could be a game-changer in the industry as the updates in technology have increased their efficiency and range.

The new generation of narrowbodies and the game-changer A321XLR

The new 737-max and A320neo families already improved the ranges and some airlines are rethinking some of their long-haul strategies. For instance, TAP Portugal already reviewed its fleet strategy focusing on the operation of the A321LR in transatlantic routes, and GOL has started flying non-stop routes with its new B737-Max 8 to the USA from Brasilia. Before this new aircraft generation, only the 757-200 was able to fly more than 7.000 km. Nevertheless, it was not efficient enough to compete against the existing widebody models and its production was stopped in 2004.

Figuras Artículos01
Range evolution of narrowbody aircraft, km (Source: Airbus, Boeing)

The true gamechanger came in 2019 when Airbus announced its latest version of the A321: the A321 Xtra-long-range. It is expected to enter into service in 2023 and it can fly up to 8.700 km, which would cover up to 99% of all scheduled flights around the globe, without considering range restrictions due to airport altitude or runway limitations. (Source: 2019 OAG scheduled flights).

A321-XLR potential routes (Source: Airbus)

This new generation of long-haul narrowbody aircraft rapidly caught the interest of several airlines. At the end of 2019, Airbus announced the aircraft had logged more than 450 orders and commitments from 22 operators and two lessors around the world (Source: Airbus).

More flexibility, lower risks and new markets

Single-aisle aircraft offer higher flexibility and reduce airline risk, allowing the airlines to easily reallocate the aircraft into other flights, even short-haul flights, if demand does not reach expected levels or if it drastically drops in future crisis. Moreover, they open a new window of opportunity in the long-haul market, for instance, point-to-point lower density routes:

  • They will allow LCC carriers to successfully develop long-haul networks and compete against legacy carriers
  • Airlines will be able to open new routes within lower demand city pairs (secondary airports) or to destination with limited airport infrastructure not prepared for widebody aircraft
  • They may also be used to schedule new frequencies in lower-demand hours out of the connections feeding bank in saturated airports
  • They can also be advantageous to target new long-haul business routes adding more frequencies without over-capacity

Covid-19 crisis may accelerate the boost of narrowbody in long-haul flights

Pre-covid traffic levels are expected to be recovered in 3-5 years, with the long-haul segment being the most affected and the one expected to recover slower. In recent weeks, most of the airlines’ fleet cut downs and order cancellations were mainly targeting widebodies and older aircraft. Narrowbodies could be the good choice to start re-opening routes with lower-risk and lower operational costs to test the passenger confidence, accelerating the introduction of these aircraft in the long-haul market.

Even after the market recovery, many airlines will not be still in a good financial position and new long-haul narrowbody aircraft seem a likely choice for them to keep updating the fleet to a more efficient, less expensive and more flexible aircraft type, and to start flying smaller.

How will this new trend affect airports?

Narrowbodies usage in main hubs is likely to remain limited due to runway capacity constraints during peak hours. However, while it may require higher runway capacities to carry a similar amount of passengers, it may also result in an optimization of the apron usage, an increase of out-of-peak hour operations and a simplification of the required infrastructure for further expansions.

Smaller aircraft require shorter turn-around times, optimizing the usage of the stand positions. Besides, as they do not need as high volumes of passenger demand as widebodies to be profitable, some long-haul flights can be scheduled out of the peak periods and the connections feeding bank increasing the usage of the runway capacity along the entire day.

Regarding secondary airports, narrowbodies’ new generation opens a new opportunity to the development of international low-demand routes without major required investments to adapt airport infrastructure to widebody aircraft type. For instance, in Brazil, there is a clear example of a highly concentrated international traffic in the main gateways. Currently, international traffic is mostly concentrated in São Paulo – Guarulhos Airport (62%) and Rio de Janeiro – Galeão Airport (19%) (Source: ANAC statistics). Around half of the international passengers starting or ending a trip in secondary airports can only get to their final destination connecting via São Paulo – Guarulhos Airport or via Rio de Janeiro – Galeão Airport. Demand is highly dispersed around the country hindering the opening of new direct routes to secondary airports with widebodies. However, these new routes might be profitable if operated with narrowbody aircraft.

Flying smaller seems a promising strategy for the industry and may have an impact on current network rational and airport infrastructure usage and planning.

About the authors
Guilherme Esmanhoto is BSc in Civil Engineering ang MBA. Principal at ALG
Alba Freixa is BSc in Aerospace Vehicle Engineering and MSc in International Air Transport and Operations Management. Consultant at ALG
For more insights, please check or contact: