3 Links I Love: More MAX Delays, Death of the Widebody, A Massive Regional Gap

This week’s featured link:

FAA and Boeing initially disagreed on severity of “catastrophic” 737 MAX software glitchThe Air Current
Best I can tell, this article is outside the paywall for The Air Current, so even those who don’t subscribe can enjoy the read. It’s yet another setback to Boeing’s attempt to bring the MAX back into service, and according to Jon Ostrower, this could add months to the delay. This is just more bad news all around.

– Image of the Week: A tribute to the MD-80 via American Airlines. The last flight is now officially AA 80 from DFW to O’Hare on September 4. And no, I am not planning to be on it.

Two for the road:

Can the A321XLR Replace Wide-Body Aircraft Across the Atlantic? History Suggests it Can.VisualApproach.io
This is a fascinating thing to ponder. Can the A321XLR usher in an era where widebodies virtually disappear on short Atlantic routes? It has happened before in a similar scenario. These markets aren’t exactly the same, but the parallels are worth considering.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to Acquire Canadair Regional Jet Program from Bombardier Inc.Mitsubishi Press Release
The rumors have proven true. Mitsubishi will acquire the last of Bombardier’s commercial aircraft programs, the CRJ. The thing is, Mitsubishi is really only acquiring it because it wants the global support network. The release says production of the CRJs will end next year. Since the M100 won’t be flying until 2023 (if they’re lucky), that means the Embraer 175 is the only scope-compliant regional jet that anyone can get for 4 more years. That seems like a mistake to me… but something tells me Embraer would heartily disagree.

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25 Responses to 3 Links I Love: More MAX Delays, Death of the Widebody, A Massive Regional Gap

  1. Kilroy says:

    Count me among the many Mad Dog fans who are sad to see the MD-80 go. I don’t consider it the prettiest plane in the world, but its appearance is distinctive (are there any other T-tailed, rear engined mainline planes flying in the US these days, other than the MD-80/-90/717?) and it’s been a solid workhorse for many years. As someone who is always in the cheap seats, the 2/3 layout with half the middle seats of the 737 and A320 series planes will probably be the biggest thing I will miss, especially in this era of basic economy.

    Any idea how much longer the MD-90/95/717 will stay in operation for domestic US flights? I know some of the 717s are only about 13 years old, so I’m hoping Delta continues to operate them for a while.

    • CraigTPA says:

      Delta’s already stated the MD-88 and MD-90 fleets will gradually be retired and replaced with A321s. I think the original target for the MD-90 retirement was supposed to be 2020?

      I think the 717s will be around for a while, they’re pretty young and Delta has enough of them to justify keeping the maintenance programme running.

      I’m not sure what route DL will take to replace the MD-88s and MD-90s with A321s – their A321-220s seat 191 and the A321neos are to seat 197, but the MD-88s and MD-90s only seat 149 and 158 (respectively). If they want to keep seats on a given route constant, I guess they could mix A321s and A220s, the 220s only seat 109-130.

    • CF says:

      Kilroy – No other T tail/rear-engine mainline airplanes. Of course, the CRJs are still going strong on the regional side.

      When American retires the MD-80, Delta will be the last major operator.
      The only airline with more than 10 other than that is Laser in Venezuela and who knows how long that’ll last. Delta will retire its aircraft in 2020.

      For the MD-90, Delta is the only operator left. It has already retired many of the airframes and is down to 40 now. It said on the last earnings call that it would provide an updated retirement schedule for the fleet soon, but we don’t have a date yet.

      The 717s are the ones that have the longest staying power. There are four airlines flying them. Delta has the most with 88 and those can keep flying for some time. Hawaiian has 20 and those may go for a decade – HA hasn’t found a suitable replacement. Cobham in Australia has them and will probably run those things into the ground for many years to come. The last one is Volotea with 17, and those are going to be phased out sooner rather than later as they ramp up with Airbuses.

  2. A says:

    Interesting history about the widebody virtually disappearing on the US transcon routes. That being said, I just don’t see that happening the same on transatlatic routes. For one, JFK to LHR is almost 1,000 miles further than to LAX. That alone means it’s not an true apples to apples comparison in my book. Claustrophobia is a thing and long times in small spaces do put pressure on people. Sure, an A321XLR can do the distance but the 757 had that ability long before as a single aisle and it by no means was dominant. The best argument I’ve seen for “this time it’s different” is that many airlines today didn’t exist back when the 757 was in its prime. Ok, different operators = different attitude. Maybe personal preference for Airbus means things are different, but I agree with LH that it’s not a game changer.

    Second, the seat to aisle ratio of widebodies vs. single aisle aircraft is intriguing but quite frankly, who cares. I’ve never heard of that being a thing, whereas CASM and other metrics certainly are. Not sure the economics but I imagine if you can fill all the seats in a 777 and fly it once vs. flying two A321XLR’s the economics of the widebody win.

    • CraigTPA says:

      @A – GIven the “pack ’em in” mentality in coach, I don’t think there’s as much difference from a passenger POV between a narrowbody and a widebody as there used to be. I’m tentatively planning a trip to England next year, and given a choice between a 10-abreast BA Mixed Fleet 777 and a narrowbody, it’d be pretty much a wash.

      Also, if a narrowbody lets me avoid connecting or a long ground trip, that’s a big plus in my book. I used to fly CO’s Newark-Bristol nonstop to visit friends in the south of England, and being able to fly directly to Bristol instead of having to fly to LHR made choosing the narrowbody a no-brainer.

    • Ben in DC says:

      Maybe I am not being open minded enough, but I don’t see this plane taking over many routes other than the ones currently served by 757s. The article does address a couple of the reasons I don’t think it will happen. The first is premium seating, like business class. That’s where airlines make their money, and there just isn’t enough room on a single aisle plane to replicate what is available on a widebody. Slot limits will also keep the need for widebodies, just not ones as big as the A380. And frequency isn’t an issue now to many of these markets, so it’s not like we need more flights. Finally, another factor to me is that while the A321 does have long legs, there are still routes where airlines will need widebodies. If airlines are going to invest in adding a widebody plane to the fleet, they’re going to need more than just a couple of them to make financial sense, which is why many will remain on these on many of these across the pond flights.

    • CF says:

      A – I think the piece was meant to be provocative, and it does get people thinking at least. But JFK-LHR is not a good route to consider, in the same way that JFK-LAX still has widebodies (but even worse because the former is constrained on both ends). There will still be widebodies, but many of them can disappear. The key point is regarding overflying the hubs. If you can now fly from Dulles to cities all over Europe (which you couldn’t do before with the 757 due to much more limited range), then how many people do you need to funnel through Vienna, Zurich, or Munich? With fewer connections required, then you can use smaller, more efficient airplanes to serve more of the local market and connections that go beyond Europe. That can allow for more frequency to feed into more hub banks and make for better connections in those longer haul markets. The key is having an airplane like the XLR which will actually be better on unit costs than some widebodies. That’s what unlocks the real potential here.

  3. Tim Dunn says:

    The reason so many widebodies were replaced domestically was because there was adequate airport capacity to absorb extra flights by narrowbody aircraft.

    That simply does not exist in most major airports on either side of the Atlantic.

    And, Delta and United both do operate substantial numbers of their flights between JFK/EWR and LAX/SFO on widebodies specifically because the demand far exceeds the number of flights in the right time channels that exist and because terminal and runway at all 4 airports is highly valuable.

    Yes, there will be many new flights added on narrowbodies to connect secondary airports but major airports simply don’t have room for a lot of new flights, esp. on narrowbodies that carry far fewer passengers and far less revenue including cargo revenue over the Atlantic.

    • B says:

      Network planners will have to enlarge the list of route options competing for planes and airport slots. Many of the slim transatlantic routes won’t make the cut, some may (just as they do during high-season with WBs).

    • Dan says:

      Yeah, most non-industry people don’t realize that narrow body aircraft don’t carry much cargo. The demand for bulk cargo (not pallet/container) isn’t all that high, so committing a narrow body aircraft to a route forfeits a lot of money right out of the gate.

      • Kilroy says:

        I’m sure the cargo revenue helps, but I doubt it is more than a marginal revenue stream on many pax routes.

        High volume shippers pay less to move air freight door-to-door (including customs brokerage, security fees, and trucks on both ends) across the Atlantic on a per-lb basis than you or I would pay if we walked into our local US Post Office and wanted to mail a package to the next town over via the cheapest possible method. Put another way, on a lb-for-lb basis, especially including the weight of the seats and a portion of the galley & lav weight, etc, a passenger generates many times more revenue for an airline than cargo of equal weight would.

        I’d be more concerned with how premium seats fit into the XLR, and with the potential loss of revenue from those. Then again, the XLR could potentially have economics and size such that an all-business class configuration might work on some routes.

  4. TimH says:

    There’s more than just range separating the transcon and intercontinental markets.

    For one, time zones: At 5/6+ hours different, I’m not sure that there’s going to be quite the demand for increased frequency as there is with transcon markets, since no one wants to say, leave at in the morning in North America and arrive in the late evening (too late for dinner or anything else) when they get to Europe. Some of the airports are also a lot more capacity constrained,which pushes you towards widebodies, and though borders don’t matter as much as they used to, I just don’t see say, point-to-point demand for Pittsburgh-Hamburg for flights to appear.

    There’s also level of service: Meals on transcon flights disappeared at the same time that the widebodies were getting replaced by narrowbodies, which meant the smaller planes didn’t need nearly as much galley space. When you get to 4000 mile flights, though, you HAVE to provide some substantial food options (whether you bake the cost into the ticket or make customers pay a la carte).

    Both those things combine to make it less likely that the XLR will cause a mass extinction of Trans Atlantic widebodies the way the original 320 (and 737 Classic/NG) did for transcon widebodies.

    • Dan says:

      There’s all kinds of things coming into play. The longer the flight, the less demand there is for higher frequencies. In terms of long-haul international, Cathay Pacific serves JFK-HKG four times per day, and that’s a lot. Most international markets are served once. Awhile back, I think UA was serving JFK-LHR four times per day as well.

      I just don’t see the XLR being a widebody killer. Opening up secondary markets? You bet. Hourly service between IAD and FRA? Probably not.

    • CF says:

      TimH – I think you’d be surprised how much frequency can still be useful from the east coast to Europe. This doesn’t mean you need massive amounts of frequency, but if you can double it… Take Dulles to Zurich, for example. United has one flight at 605p arriving 805a the next day. That’s great for the morning bank of connections, but what if you want to go to Delhi? The SWISS flight leaves at 1240p. If they could run one flight at 605p and another at 9p, you now provide more utility for both the business traveler who needs to work a full day in DC or have a dinner meeting and the connecting passenger who wants to go beyond Europe. That’s already the schedule they run out of New York, but that’s because New York is a bigger market and can support more capacity. Markets like Dulles can’t.

      As for meals, that just requires more galley space to be built in. Sure, it means fewer seats onboard, but it’s all just math. And many seem to think the math still works.

      • Nathan P says:

        As a Raleigh resident I hope to see more options to Europe via these new narrowbodies. Instead of AA offering a daily 777 to LHR, why not a few smaller planes to LON, MAD, and/or BCN. DL could downgage the 767 to CDG and add options to AMS or FCO. Perhaps a Star alliance carrier could offer FRA or MUC, even if only seasonally.

        Perhaps RDU is still too small of a market, but I would consider driving to either CLT or IAD if the perfect non-stop were offered. Anything to avoid a CDG connection!

      • Tim Dunn says:

        In addition to slots at airports on both ends, space in the tracks over the Atlantic is already very crowded at the peak times. Considering that widebodies cruise faster, narrowbodies might not be given their preferred altitudes which will result in more fuel burn for the narrow bodies.

  5. DesertGhost says:

    If the only scope compliant regional aircraft a U.S. carrier can buy is an E-175 E1, Embraer will probably suffer too. Most U.S. carriers are maxed out on 76 seaters so there won’t be much of a market for new regional aircraft (if only 76 seat aircraft are available). United, especially, has some real scope issues, which is why it ordered the CRJ-550 (which apparently won’t be available after its current order is filled). While United could buy A220s or E-195s to give it more 76 seat flexibility (a la Delta) it hasn’t done it. American’s scope clause allows for more 76 seaters than the others, an advantage of filing for bankruptcy last. Yet, American is also approaching its 76 seat limit (although a number of its Mesa CRJ-900s are getting a bit long in the tooth). One obvious option (at least to me) is to take another look at scope. I know most here feel that’s virtually impossible. But the way the aircraft manufacturing industry is consolidating and upguaging its offerings leaves little choice, since it appears that virtually every aircraft with fewer than 76 seats is in imminent danger of extinction. I feel (with the full realization that I could be completely wrong) there’s a way to get to a better place for all sides if they’re willing to talk (which I realize is the hard part). Delta’s fleet plan is one possible model for the other legacies, but the individual carriers and unions will make that determination based on their own needs. Another option is for all legacy carriers to emulate Southwest domestically (which many mainline pilots would like), but that would involve a lot of lost service to smaller communities (and a large number of lost jobs), something Congress and the President may not like. If I’m not mistaken, the legacy carriers’ pilot contracts are becoming amendable relatively soon, it’ll be interesting to see where all of this goes.

    • Oliver says:

      > United, especially, has some real scope issues, which is why it ordered the CRJ-550 (which apparently won’t be available after its current order is filled).

      Aren’t they just some reconfigured (and certified) old CRJ-700s? Would UA not be able to order more if needed?

      • DesertGhost says:

        CRJ production is ending as soon as the standing orders are delivered, per the news release.

        • Oliver says:

          Right, but UA isn’t depending on the production of new frames. Could Bombardier/Mitsubishi continue to convert existing frames, or does that fall under “production ending” as well? Does it even require Bombardier to do anything, or could a 3rd party do it?

          • DesertGhost says:

            From what I understand, United is pretty much scoped out above 50 seats (which is why it ordered a CFJ-700 with 50 seats). I’m guessing some of the details about the maintenance/conversion you raised are being worked out as part of the escrow process. The sale isn’t supposed to close until early 2020.

  6. Oliver says:

    The Air Current article states that “[t]he issue is seen to be unrelated to the existing fleet of Next Generation 737 aircraft”, but it also seems unrelated to MCAS. So the older types don’t have those microprocessors or it’s a software bug that only exists in the MAX version?

    And, did this bug exist prior to the MCAS fix, or was it introduced when fixing the MCAS bug?

    And why did Boeing not discover this bug?

  7. Spacie says:

    Would the A321XLR provide decent margin on the intercontinental routes? I’m just wondering with the jet stream becoming increasingly wonky due to climate change, could that be troublesome for some routes during some times of the year?

    • CF says:

      Spacie – It will, if the numbers being proposed are right. The jetstream only limits range, but this has plenty of range for east coast to Europe.

  8. Andy says:

    I’m honestly more upset by the death of the CRJ than the Mad Dogs.

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