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Analysis: The Airbus A220 Is Redefining Regional Ops At Delta

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Analysis: The Airbus A220 Is Redefining Regional Ops At Delta

Analysis: The Airbus A220 Is Redefining Regional Ops At Delta
July 25
11:06 2019

The Airbus A220 should be seen as the sweet spot between a Bombardier CRJ-900 and a Boeing 787.

Delta Air Lines (DL) took delivery of its first Airbus A220-100 in October 2018, becoming the first American carrier to operate the Canadian-manufactured plane.

Since then, the airline became the world’s largest A220-100 customer, with an initial firm order for 75 aircraft, later increasing it to 90 aircraft, consisting of 40 A220-100s and 50 A220-300s.

Last month, during the Paris Air Show, the airline placed an additional order for five A220-100s, making it 95 planes to join its 100-seat plane segment.

The aircraft has been an utter success in its first five months of operations with the Atlanta-based carrier. Here’s why.

Delta’s A220 game plan is to make the mainline 100-seat aircraft pay dividends.


Historically, the 100-passenger market has been a tough nut to crack. Because of operational inefficiencies, airlines often find themselves diverting certain routes off their mainline to their regional subsidiary airline in the 50- to 75-seat class.

This is far from ideal and tends to lead to a passenger experience that can be unpleasant and not representative of the mainline carriers’ overall products.

Photo: Tom Harris

Since deregulation, 100-120-seat aircraft have not generated revenues that are commensurate to the investment in them. When you look at aircraft like the Boeing 737-600 and the Airbus A318, you find that shortening an aircraft is seldom a good idea.

The problem is always the same: fuel burn on the shortened fuselage is not that much better than that of 150-275 seat aircraft, with worsening economics and higher per-seat costs.

Photo: Tom Harris

The Airbus A220 has solved the fuel burn issue for this segment. With Pratt & Whitney’s revolutionary GTF engine, the A220 not only has the quiet efficiency to make the 100-seat market a revenue-generating proposition for medium and short-haul routes, but the A220 also has the range to open up a whole new group of city pairs that were unimaginable for an aircraft of this size.

The scope clause, the regulation after the regulation.


For those of you who don’t know, the scope clause has been one of the major factors regulating the US aviation industry post-deregulation.

It is an agreement between the major pilot’s unions and mainline carriers that limit the number and type of flights that can be outsourced to a regional carrier by imposing seat and weight limits. Its purpose is to protect the salaries of mainline carrier pilots, who are paid by the hour (door close to door open).

Photo: Tom Harris

But the scope clause has had a broader impact than just protecting pilot salaries: it has influenced how aircraft are designed and marketed, how airlines execute their business plans, and it has created a two-tier system for wages in the commercial aviation industry.

Airlines have gone to battle with unions over their desire to deploy an aircraft, only to have come up against strong opposition in defense of the scope clause.

Photo: Tom Harris

The A220 would appear to turn the scope clause conundrum on its head. From the beginning of its development through its first flight, the Airbus A220 (formerly known as the Bombardier CSeries) always appeared to have all the visual cues of an aircraft that fell within the scope clause.

Its cabin cross-section is limited seating to a 3-2 layout in coach and 2-2 in first. Its length was somewhere in between a CRJ-700 and a 737-700. Its development was protracted—it always seemed to stop and start; it had to be rescued; and then, finally, the program was purchased outright at very favorable terms by Airbus.

Photo: Tom Harris

European carriers such as airBaltic and Swiss picked these aircraft up, and they seemed well suited for the intra-European market.

Given what I knew about the aircraft and the scope clause, I felt like this aircraft would be a non-starter in the United States. That’s the trouble with being a know-it-all like myself, you’re always finding out new things!

Delta makes it work!


Once again, Delta Air Lines confounds and surprises with its fleet acquisitions. They have done a remarkable job of knowing the precise time to purchase an aircraft type, new or used, and how to deploy them in their system.  

So, when Delta purchased an initial batch of 75 A220s, I was more than a little curious as to how these aircraft would be deployed. And, I was thrilled to hear that Seattle would be one of the first places to get them.

Photo: Tom Harris

For a US carrier the size of Delta, to purchase 100 A220s for mainline operations seemed like a bit of an unusual move. In fact, most people in the aviation prognostication business felt like Delta knew something we didn’t, namely, that they were anticipating an impending change in the scope clause.

But, at least at this point, it appears that Delta will use the A220 without making a big change in the alignment of its mainline carrier business and its supplemental carriers through the scope clause.

Conversations around the Airbus A220 have always been regarding its proximity to aircraft that are scope clause compliant. I think that that is an incorrect prism in which to view this aircraft.

The conversation we should be having is about what type of air travel business model does the A220 open up.

Aircraft like the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner have proven themselves to be revolutionary in a way that we couldn’t see back in 2006 or 2007. We certainly talked about city pairs and frequencies, but I think few of us foresaw that airlines like British Airways would be flying Heathrow to Austin, Texas with almost completely full 787-9s.

The A350 and the 787 are just beginning to open the world to new route networks. They have changed entire business models that had been established since deregulation.

The Airbus A220 may become the 787/A350 of the 100-seat market. What this plane represents is the fruition of a dream that airlines could make 100- to 120-seat aircraft profitable with their mainline crews and mainline product, in general.

The medium- to long-and-thin routes can now be served by mainline crews and an airline’s best cabin product. The operational efficiency has made a trip from Seattle (SEA) to San Jose (SJC) profitable by an incredible +20% improvement in fuel burn.

It is my personal belief that the increased gross-weight versions of the A220 that Delta is purchasing could very well make their way to London City Airport (LCY) from Boston (BOS), New York (JFK), or Washington, D.C. (IAD).

Other route candidates for upgrading service in competitive markets for business travel include JFK to Orange County (SNA) or Key West (EYW); Salt Lake City (SLC) to Mexico City (MEX); and JFK to Austin (AUS).

Delta’s developing focus and hub cities like Raleigh/Durham and Austin seem particularly well suites as does Delta’s burgeoning Boston hub. The A220 could prove itself an excellent piece of equipment to smaller international destinations in Central and South America, point-to-point, not just from Delta’s hub in Atlanta.

The A220, in a normal two-class configuration, offers a superior customer experience. It has the advantage of wider seats and better seat pitch throughout the cabin.  It also offers amenities not often found on regional flights such as its own in-flight entertainment system and bigger lavatories.

Delta working to become the airline of choice for nervous flyers.


Customers and crew members flying Delta’s A220 will also have the advantage of a smoother flight due to the airline’s Flight Weather Viewer app, which is a team effort between Delta’s renown in-house meteorology department and The Weather Channel.

Pilots on the A220 and other mainline flights carry iPads with the weather app added. The Flight Weather Viewer app gathers real-time data from sensors on hundreds of aircraft to allow better prediction of turbulence.

Photo: Tom Harris

The result is an overall decrease in turbulence encounters on Delta flights, enhancing the customer experience and crew safety and reducing the length and cost of detours to avoid severe weather.

I was told on multiple occasions during my run-through of the system that this was all about reducing injuries for the cabin crew. It has paid off as Delta has been experiencing less severe turbulence encounters every year since it’s been in use.

A220 passengers know the difference


When the Boeing 777 first went into service, I remember asking people what they thought, and you would get a response like: “oh yeah, this is nice.”

You would sometimes have to prompt them and show them the differences between the 777 and the DC-10 that they were used to flying.  You almost had to coach them a bit to reach the conclusion. The 787, less so.

Photo: Tom Harris

But, when I polled a group of passengers on the A220, their response was immediate and enthusiastic. Most people don’t know what type of bird they are flying on, but the people on my flight immediately knew that there was something very special about this aircraft. I’ve never seen passengers so enthusiastic.

Photo: Tom Harris

Walking through the economy-class cabin, you could see and feel a whole different atmosphere and energy among the passengers. It was clear that they were a lot more comfortable than being crammed into the back of a CRJ-700.

I can’t understate how comfortable and beautiful this aircraft is. It was disorienting to have so many wide-body elements in an aircraft that is decidedly short-haul. The overhead bins were huge, and boarding was relatively trouble-free for an aircraft of this size there was very little baggage Tetris that goes on before the doors close.

Photo: Tom Harris

The lavatories on this aircraft were more than adequate in the rear of the plane, and palatial at the front! My last attempt at using a lavatory on a CRJ-700 looked like an outtake from Planes Trains and Automobiles. Once I was inside it, I could not get out!

Photo: Tom Harris

Delta’s new wireless IFE performed very well, and the first-class cabin service was impeccable as always—not the kind of service a lot of people are used to on the segment I was flying on.

The seats are a generous 21.5 inches wide and the new tray table set up is most excellent. This is an aircraft I could easily fly Seattle to Shanghai on if it had the range.

It is going to be very interesting to see what Delta does with this aircraft. I truly believe they are going to surprise us with this bird.

Mainline 100-seat operations. We have been here before.


Attempts to serve the 100-passenger market with the same efficiency and profitability as the A220 arose with the A318.  Originally conceived as cooperation between Aviation Industries of China, Singapore Technologies Aerospace and Airbus, the aircraft would have been in the 100- to 120-seat category.

This was due to be a completely new design rather than a derivative of the A320 series. Designated AE316 and AE317, the dimensions of this aircraft were remarkably like the A220.

The program never came to fruition, primarily because the participants in the program could never settle on capacity and range.

What ultimately became the A318 ended up being hobbled by Pratt & Whitney’s protracted and trouble-plagued development of the PW 6000. That engine program was attempting to achieve a similar fuel burn to what was ultimately delivered with the GTF.

Had that aircraft flown with the engines that were to be originally developed for it, things would’ve been considerably different, it would have potentially offered the performance and range we are now seeing with the A220 – optimal size, customer experience, and fuel efficiencies.

Making a little fuel go a very long way.


Pilots are reporting that the A220 is averaging 3,500 pounds an hour fuel burn on a three-hour segment, whereas a comparable 717, on the same segment with a similar load of passengers, is averaging 5,000 pounds of fuel per hour.

That amounts to a 20% fuel savings over 717s on comparable routes, with attendant costs savings for the A220.

The 100+ passenger size of the A220 does what smaller regional aircraft can not—become a workhorse in the mainline operations. A 76-seat aircraft will never work in mainline operations.

An airline would need to pay mainline gate operations and mainline crew wages.  The revenue from a 50 to 70-seat aircraft, especially one without the fuel efficiency of the A220, will consistently operate on razor-thin margins. Changing the scope clause to allow more regional operations also won’t fix the problem.

The customer experience on the regional sized aircraft is night and day. Given competitive pricing made possible by the A220s efficiencies and size, customers will be more likely to choose the A220.

The Captain that I interviewed on a recent flight confirmed this on an anecdotal basis. He has been seeing new customers coming onto Delta’s A220 directly from an American Eagle 70- to 76-seat aircraft. Routes that were used by scopes clause compliant 76 seat aircraft we’ll see a lot of pressure from mainline A220s.

According to Captain David Klodnicki, Delta’s goal is to do away with 50-seat jet aircraft altogether, and service that used to be attended to by 70- to 76-seat scope-clause compliant aircraft will be up gauged to mainline services with the A220.

Photo: Tom Harris

He believes that dispatch will find areas in the network that are now served by a combination of mainline and regional services and streamline those to the A220, cutting out an additional 20% of the regional aircraft.

In that scenario, a city pair that is serviced by a combination of ERJs and 717s would be consolidated into the A220-100 and A220-300 — which would mean fewer flights, but much higher yields considering operational efficiencies.

A Pilot Pleasing Plane


Pilots appear to really like flying the A220. Some mentioned little things, like how quiet the APU is on their preflight walkaround. And, the types of flight management automation that this aircraft offers are exactly the things that pilots appreciate having the aircraft take over: they don’t have to monitor temperatures for anti-icing and they don’t have to constantly monitor hydraulic pressures.

The feedback from pilots has been extremely positive on workload reduction, and they feel that the types of workload reduction targeted for this aircraft are exactly what they were looking for.

Photo: Tom Harris

Pilots are also mindful about the lift generated by the unique shape of the wing.  Captain Roelofs noted that this is an aircraft that pilots need to get ahead on the descent, of because it really wants to stay in the air and really loves to fly. Getting it down on the ground involves some mindful taming of its spirit!

Pratt & Whitney’s GTF: New parameters for the care and feeding of a revolutionary engine


There are also some operational features that pilots need to be aware of with the geared turbofan engines. These include rotor bow.

Shutting an engine down will create cooling at different rates and temperatures, and the tops of the engine will cool later than the bottom of the engine because heat rises.

Photo: Tom Harris

This happens to all engines, but the tolerances in Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan are so tight that the rotor where the fan blades are mounted will cool at different temperatures and rates.

This requires pilots to implement a three-minute cool-down procedure. Pilots encountering short taxi to gate situations will have to take their time for things to cool down before they shut everything down at the gate.

Photo: Tom Harris

If the engines are shut down prior to three minutes, the situation must be reported to maintenance and inspected thoroughly (which typically takes a full eight-hour shift).

The captains I spoke with said that these procedures are easy to follow and shouldn’t be a problem in mainline service. It remains to be seen how much on-wing reliability that these engines will deliver.

Conclusions

Delta knows what it’s doing. It says a lot that American and United haven’t even bothered to change the conversation about the A220 from its connection with current scope clause issues to thinking about this aircraft in terms of its mainline operations. It’s that lack of imagination could continue to create problems for those two carriers.

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Tom Harris

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