Op-Ed: Flying Single vs. Diverse Aircraft Types

Op-Ed: Flying Single vs. Diverse Aircraft Types

DALLAS — On the challenging journey towards achieving profitability in the airline industry, there are numerous factors that require meticulous analysis to develop a successful strategy and establish a prominent position in the market.

In addition to strategic considerations such as route planning, pricing, marketing campaigns, and public relations, the aircraft fleet plays a pivotal role in the operation of an airline.

In an industry that offers a wide array of products, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, airlines have the option to either diversify their fleet by adopting multiple aircraft variants or remain dedicated to a specific aircraft type. Today, we will explore the advantages of each strategy and determine which one is more favorable for airlines.

Ryanair Boeing 737-800 combo.
Ryanair currently flies 297 Boeing 737 family airplanes, reducing formation and maintenance costs largely. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways.

Unifying Costs Reduces Costs

Opting to operate a single aircraft type is considered one of the most effective approaches to minimizing airline expenses. There are various costly aspects associated with aircraft operations, particularly in terms of personnel training for pilots, mechanics, handlers, and others who must possess extensive knowledge to ensure the safe daily operation of the aircraft.

Each aircraft variant requires distinct treatment, even within the same aircraft family. For instance, the Airbus A330-300 can be equipped with three different engine models, each necessitating specific maintenance and operational procedures. Consequently, selecting a single airframe and powerplant for the fleet can significantly reduce costs associated with training and maintenance.

Focusing exclusively on one aircraft variant also enables airlines to procure large quantities of spare parts for their specific aircraft type, potentially leading to substantial discounts during purchases.

Prominent low-cost airlines like Spirit (NK), Easyjet (U2), and IndiGo (6E) exemplify this strategy by exclusively operating Airbus A320 family aircraft. This enables them to offer significantly lower fares compared to traditional airlines, which have fleets consisting of three to five different aircraft types.

The grounding of the Boeing 787 due to Trent 1000 issues was one of the causes of the Norwegian bankruptcy in 2020. Photo: Andrew Henderson/Airways

A High-Risk, High-Reward Methodology

Rephrased: While operating a single aircraft type can provide cost-saving benefits by allowing carriers to specialize their operations, it also exposes them to significant risk when that particular aircraft type encounters design issues that result in grounding. In such cases, airlines are left with no alternative means to operate their routes.

A prime example of this risk is evident in the extensive grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX in 2019, which had a devastating impact on the already struggling Norwegian Air Shuttle. The carrier had placed a substantial order for this aircraft variant from Boeing, and the grounding compounded the challenges it was already facing. Furthermore, the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engine issues and the subsequent grounding of the Boeing 787 further contributed to the airline group’s bankruptcy once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

Another instance is the Indian low-cost carrier Go First (G8), which had 50 out of its 55 aircraft equipped with PW1100 engines. The airline ceased operations in May 2023 following the discovery of design flaws in the engine model, which led to the grounding of a significant portion of its fleet.

As a result of these experiences, most airlines that have successfully navigated through the challenges of operating single-aircraft fleets have opted for well-established veteran aircraft series that have been in production for decades. The Boeing 737 Next Generation and the A320ceo families are examples of aircraft series that have already undergone rigorous testing and addressed initial “issues findings,” which typically arise during the early years after the variant’s commercial introduction.

AirBaltic has placed its full trust in the Airbus A220, by already operating 44 units of the type. Photo: AirBaltic.

Flying One Variant Reduces Flexibility

Another crucial factor to consider when deciding to operate a single aircraft type is the airline’s long-term strategy. While flying a single variant can reduce costs on established routes, it presents challenges when it comes to exploring new possibilities due to its lack of flexibility.

A recent example is AirBaltic (BT), which has exclusively operated the Airbus A220-300 since 2020 and recently received its 44th aircraft of this type. However, this means that the airline is essentially limited in its ability to expand its transatlantic operations from its main hubs, even if a profitable non-stop route from Riga (RIX) to New York (JFK) exists.

The range of the Airbus A220-300 is not sufficient to reach the American continent with a full load, despite the demand. Therefore, AirBaltic would need to consider purchasing or leasing long-haul aircraft if it wishes to operate this route effectively.

In contrast, Norse Atlantic Airways relies solely on the Boeing 787 to operate its transatlantic network. The low-cost carrier initially attempted to fly the Dreamliner on short-haul routes like London (LGW) to Oslo (OSL), but due to the economic failure of this route given the size of the aircraft, it was quickly removed from the schedule.

On the other hand, Lufthansa (LH), the national German airline, operates a fleet of 329 aircraft across 16 different variants. While this system is undoubtedly expensive to maintain, it provides the company with the flexibility to perfectly adapt to newly explored markets by varying the range and capacity of their aircraft when necessary. This allows Lufthansa to respond effectively to changing market demands at all times.

United operates one of the most diverse fleets in the world, with 22 different aircraft variants today. Photo: Luca Flores/Airways.

Good Solutions for Different Purposes

Ultimately, when considering financial and passenger traffic statistics in the airline industry, operating diverse or single-aircraft fleets does not necessarily make one option better than the other. Both approaches can be highly beneficial for any business if implemented correctly within their strategies.

An airline that has a clear purpose and a focused approach, with minimal interest in exploring new possibilities and instead prioritizing the refinement of its system, may opt to operate just one type of aircraft. However, this choice comes with the caveat of being prepared to handle potential aircraft grounding situations and having sufficient alternative options to mitigate any disruptions.

Ryanair, Europe’s largest low-cost airline, has exemplified success with this methodology, achieving extraordinary traffic results during the summer of 2023. This can be attributed to the meticulous execution of its single-aircraft fleet strategy, which has been in place since the departure of the last BAC 1-11 from its fleet in 1994.

On the other hand, United Airlines (UA) has thrived in one of the most challenging sectors of the commercial industry since 1926. Presently, it operates 22 different aircraft series, allowing the airline to expand its network to 346 destinations worldwide. This extensive fleet flexibility has played a vital role in its success.

If you were to create your own airline, which fleet design system would you choose? We invite you to share your thoughts on our social media platforms.

Featured image: Jinyuan Liu/Airways

Deputy Reporter - Europe & Middle East
Commercial aviation enthusiast from Madrid, Spain. Studying for a degree in Air Traffic Management and Operations at the Technical University of Madrid. Aviation photographer since 2018.

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