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Op-ed: Icelandair’s Fleet Is About To Get More Complex

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Op-ed: Icelandair’s Fleet Is About To Get More Complex

Op-ed: Icelandair’s Fleet Is About To Get More Complex
February 09
08:30 2019

They’d rather it not, but they admit it’s going to be a challenge.

During Icelandair’s Mid-Atlantic exhibition last week, Icelandair was more than forthcoming with the fact that the 757 is not going to last forever.

They’d love for them to last, but as Icelandair becomes more focused on the new, competitive industry and their environmental responsibilities; something has to change.

The problem of being a small airline


Icelandair defined using the 757 as an intercontinental airliner. Icelandair was in despair when the 757 ceased being a part of the Boeing line up. They would love more 757s, yesterday.

This Icelandair Boeing 757-208(WL), registered TF-FIO (MSN 29436 / LN 859) was pictured flying over the rarely green Icelandic countryside. PHOTO: Baldur Sveinsson.

Thing is, Icelandair only has a fleet of twenty-eight planes. This year, it will go up to thirty-four, but no one within the organization has any intent to keep it that way long term.

In the words of one Icelandair senior staffer who was willing to be quoted, but anonymously, “Look, we know we’re a small airline – when I was last in Seattle; Boeing announced an order for 737 MAX larger than our entire airline will ever be,” he said.

They are well aware that while Boeing takes their input seriously, it is aggregated.

They will never order enough airliners to truly move the design needle. Other airlines dictate their requirements and back it up with billions of dollars of orders.

Icelandair, by virtue of cultural cringe mostly, is locked between two suppliers. They have their choice of Boeing or Airbus.

What can they do with Boeing?


Now, Icelandair did have a grand total of five Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners on order at launch. They sold the delivery slots for more than they’d have probably ever made operating the aircraft.

But even back in that era, Icelandair knew they were in a pickle and were attempting to future-proof. Instead, they went with the 737 MAX, which is the best aircraft Boeing can offer them. No question.

The diversity of the 737 MAX family allows Icelandair the ability to fly the MAX 8 on longer missions and with the MAX 9s arriving this year—trade the 757’s higher Operational Empty Weight (OEW) for the 737 MAX 9s superior unit cost on some of their routes to continental Europe.

Thing is, on Icelandair’s lucrative routes to the West Coast of North America, the MAX is not a feasible airliner within their economic structure. It can’t work.

Even if it could, it’d create a complex situation of sub-fleets, which they cannot really justify to the board—let alone actual financials.

Boeing NMA Rendering

This leaves the NMA, MOM, 797, or whatever you want to call it as the aircraft Icelandair would be the most interested in.

But what is the NMA? Are we even going to see any of them enter service before 2025?

With respect to what it is, we can guess. With the date, we’re not going to. By then, Icelandair won’t have many 757s left in operation, simply due to age and economics.

Is the NMA going to be twin-aisle? What’s the final still-air range going to be? How much input does Icelandair really have?

Believe me, even with Boeing shopping them the plane, Icelandair’s senior officials have made it clear they’re still interested in more details before they sign any MOUs or LOIs.

Icelandair operated five Boeing 767-300ER aircraft. Pictured is TF-FIB, arriving in Keflavik on May 18, 2005 – the only 767 to carry the full Icelandair markings. This aircraft was mainly deployed on the San Fransisco route in the 2005-2006 period. PHOTO: Baldur Sveinsson.

Really, the only Boeing option that Icelandair can get beyond the 737 MAX that suits their network options on a reasonable timeframe is more, used, 767s—engine commonality, common type rating with the 757, but massively oversized for many of their routes.

Capacity pushes yields down, and if the seats fly out empty, the unit cost skyrockets. It’s not pretty when your niche is Icelandair’s.

What of Airbus?


Despite the fact there’s a mysterious “Airbus” room at Icelandair’s training center, few at Icelandair can really see themselves operating any Airbus frame.

They may have to.

The A321XLR that Airbus is shopping is the closest Airbus product, really the closest – Western – product to their 757s. Around 180 seats at ~3200nm with an okay payload of fish. Unit cost savings galore, too.

Airbus rolls out its first A321neo ACF (Airbus Cabin Flex) in Hamburg with the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Statue of Liberty in New York illustrating its transatlantic flight capability on its livery. PHOTO: Airbus.

Thing is, the A321XLR would likely only be able to do West-Coast missions with a couple of Additional Center Tanks (ACT) installed. ACTs result in fewer spaces for fish. And really, it’s not a joke, Icelandair makes a phenomenal amount of money off of fish transport.

The A330neo is too large, even the -800neo. It’s also a lot of extra OEW for their mid-Atlantic missions.

The dark horse they could explore is the A220 series. That thing has a range for days.

The A220’s payload range curve doesn’t even fall off a cliff with a reasonable amount of passengers. It’s awful small, though – and has no commonality with any other Airbus aircraft. Not that any new type would have any commonality within the Icelandair fleet.

So what is to be done?


That’s the thing. Icelandair, it seems, are resigned to a quicker 757 exit than they would like.

Their current CEO, Bogi Nils, is very much a numbers guy. In conversation with him, he said that they pay between 500-700ISK (US$4-$7.80) per liter of Jet-A fuel. The numbers don’t lie.

Icelandair CEO, Bogi Nils.

For that simple reason, the Boeing 737 MAX is considerably more efficient than a 757-200.

My proposal


Icelandair should own the subfleet model by densifying and changing up its product offering.

I actually had a long chat with some Icelandair people in the Saga lounge about this—if Icelandair becomes an all 737 MAX operator, they will need lighter, lower-density, 737 MAX to fly to the US West Coast.

Icelandair’s Boeing 737 MAX 9 Economy Class cabin

This means that they should consider using one of Thompson’s, light and dense, lie-flat narrow-body seats; take the seat pitch down one inch in Economy Class, and kaboom: capacity close enough to a 757 with a better unit cost and fewer seats for higher yield.

Icelandair’s Boeing 737 MAX 9 Business Class cabin

Icelandair can still maintain their uniquely Icelandic niche, they can still offer a cost advantage by being a quasi-sixth-freedom carrier.

Just now, Icelandair has subfleets. It’d be mental if something went tech and they had to weight-restrict a “euro” bird to send to the West Coast, though. Precisely.

So here’s my solution.

Ditch the subfleets except 8, 9, and 10. Have the same seats in all of them. Just denser. Play with the weights accordingly.

While that is going on, watch the 797 closely and when the specifications are firmed up, go and order some.

Expand the fleet slightly, or lease out the 737 fleet that is now excess through Loftleidir. Everyone wants narrowbodies, always. Not a bad investment.

Except


What if I told you there was a next century airliner already in flight test that did everything Icelandair would ever want?

Could there be a ~180 seat aircraft with a roughly 3200nm realistic range? Wouldn’t it be nice if that aircraft had the latest P&W GTF engines?

Icelandair’s always wanted more containerized aircraft to better facilitate fish transport. This one is!

I mean, it’s already out there. Flying around Irkutsk.

Oh, right. We can’t buy Russian airliners because? Cold War ended guys.

By paradox of cultural cringe, Icelandair could actually be a “big fish” to UAC. They could even ask for an MC-21-400 with more seats or at the very least a “300DA.” (DA is the Russian abbreviation for long-range aviation).

Remember MC was never romanized. You’re really saying “MS-21” an abbreviation of “Магистральный Самолёт 21 века” We don’t say MS-21V as it is!

It’s the one plane that actually does what Icelandair says they want a plane to do, and they could get them for a song.

They do that. I’d be Saga Gold inside of a month.

It also so happens that it’s the only way they can maintain one aircraft type for every mission. Funny that.

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Bernie Leighton

Bernie Leighton

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