The wide-body plane may be another casualty of coronavirus

Your days are numbered.
Your days are numbered.
Image: Courtesy United Airlines
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With the Covid-19 crisis likely to reform the make-up of airline fleets, wide-body planes appear to be first in line for the chopping block.

In a note published April 13, Cowen analysts Conor Cunningham and Helane Becker suggested US airlines of the future would be “smaller, leaner, and more efficient,” following the eventual removal of an estimated 900 aircraft from service, out of 23,600 passenger and cargo crafts worldwide.

In conference calls with investors earlier this week, the CEOs of both Boeing and Airbus said they expected narrow-body plane production to recover more quickly. “The modeling, the simulations, and the data we are collecting and computing, are telling us that the single line is very likely to recover faster than the wide bodies,” said Guillaume Faury, the CEO of Airbus. “On the wide-body, we think it is going to take more time. Scenarios of full recovery of the Covid-19 is probably between 2023 to 2025.”

In a sense, this is nothing new: Wide-bodied planes have come second fiddle to single-aisle alternatives for some time. Narrow-bodies are, for the most part, a far more efficient buy, seating an average of 148 passengers and burning 876 gallons of jet fuel per hour. Wide body planes, by contrast, seat 248 on average and burn 1,937 gallons per hour. (They’re also more expensive to buy and store.)

Anticipating further falls in demand, both manufacturers have therefore announced plans to slash manufacturing of these larger jets: Boeing will halve production of the 787 Dreamliner from 14 a month to seven by 2022, while Airbus last month said it would produce six twin-aisle A350s a month, down from 10. It also intends to produce 24 A330 wide-body planes in 2020, rather than the anticipated 40.

Narrowing the options

For a long time, as the only option for long-haul flight, wide body jets made the rockin’ world go round. Planes such as the Boeing 747, introduced in 1969, could take passengers further than ever before—at a price within the reach of middle-class travelers. “Its per-seat operating costs were so low that it opened intercontinental flying to the masses,” writes Jay Spenser, co-author of 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life in Aviation.

It became a staple of international airlines such as El Al, the national airline of Israel, which used it on ultra-long haul non-stop flights between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. But as narrow-body offerings got better, the airline is among many to retire it in favor of newer, more efficient models.

Medium-sized single aisle planes continue to improve: Airbus’ new A321XLR, where the XLR stands for “eXtra Long Range,” has an enlarged central fuel tank, giving it a total range of 5,400 miles (8,700 km), approximately the distance from St. Louis to Moscow. The Boeing 737 Max, if and when it returns to service, remains among the most fuel-efficient planes ever built.

At the same time, production of twin-aisle planes has slowed with demand. The 747 is limping on—but only just, with two-thirds of the 1,500 planes produced since the 1960s no longer in service. Airlines such as British Airways, which has 33 in its fleet, have announced their plans to stop flying them altogether by 2024. Boeing has prevaricated on when it might cease production, though with 17 in the production queue and no new orders of the planes in 2019, the decision may be made for them.

In the past 12 months, sluggish passenger growth has dampened enthusiasm for wide-body planes, while the US-China trade war has resulted in fewer orders for Boeing planes from Chinese airlines. Now, with a deep recession likely to eat away at travel demand, at least in the short-term, it’ll be harder to fill these larger, less efficient planes.

Meanwhile, airlines have made savvy purchasing choices in order not to invest in new planes, including fixing up the interiors of planes already in their fleet, rather than springing for entirely new models.

Finding new purpose

There’s at least one upside for airlines with an abundance of underused twin-aisle planes: While passenger demand is at an all-time low, the need for air freight capacity, for medical supplies, PPE, or other cargo, has recently risen.

In early April, the Dutch airline KLM announced that it would be returning two of its enormous Boeing 747 Combis to service, using the passenger deck to carry cargo. Airbus is thinking similarly: In a statement released yesterday, the manufacturer announced a design tweak in the works which would allow airlines with A330 and A350 planes to remove passenger seats and replace them with cargo freight pallets.