PHOENIX — With the Phoenix International Aviation Symposium wrapped up, we thought we’d return to a handle of tidbits from a network and fleet planning discussion that perhaps didn’t warrant a full-on story but were never-the-less notable or at least interesting. That’s the fun of panels, we suppose. Some will be elaborated threads, others simple quotes. Enjoy:
A popular theme was the industry trend toward both larger airplanes (nothing new here), but also to a pursuing a greater mix of aircraft tailored to specific markets (slightly newer, particularly AA’s admission that the A330neo was at the very least not off the table). AA’s VP of Network Planning, Charles Schubert, said as much during a panel Thursday morning, noting that AA looks for the “right plane for the right mission.” In effect, looking for perhaps smaller batches of airplanes geared toward a specific job, rather than buying more simply one type of long haul aircraft. A good example of this trend would be 787s and A350s vs A330s and 767s. Both are long haul aircraft, but find themselves occupying drastically different niches – largely thanks to differences in range.
To some degree bucking the RJ-ditching trend, American conceded that its network has plenty of cities in which the 50-seat regional jet was the only viable choice. Where exactly does that leave small-city service as the RJs are transitioned out and new aircraft are upgauged to 70-seat? “There will be questions about whether some cities can be supported with upgauged CRJs. Hopefully most if not all markets will mature such that they can support it,” said Schubert.
A related discussion could be had regarding short-haul point to point markets commonly served by RJs and similar, such as Albany-Buffalo or White Plains-Boston. Consensus seemed to agree that between security lines and other challenges flying will become increasingly less desirable compared to driving. Most of those markets are unlikely to return, said several panelists.
Still, Schubert said times were better for the RJ than in the past: “They’re much more economical today than they were two-three years ago,” he said.
Bill Franke, Chairman of Indigo Partners (of formerly Spirit and now Frontier fame), on why long-haul LCCs will continue to struggle: international carriers’ frequent flier programs, legacy carrier’s frequency capability, and a product that by nature LCCs can’t match.
Bill Franke again, speaking whether we can expect consolidation among the US tweener carriers (not quite full legacy, and not quite low-cost – ie Alaska, jetBlue, Virgin etc): “There is a clear discrimination in cost structure and product in US airlines. There is an argument to be made that further consolidation is needed. Sooner or later they’ll be a move between those two bottom segment groups.”
Also interesting was Airbus CEO of North America, Barry Eccleston, more or less saying that while they could conceivably push the A321(beyond the current LR model) to match the current 757 performance, they aren’t sure that it is worth it. “In some niche markets,” he said, “they’ll be someone who wants it.” But he thought capacity would take a big hit, around 100ish. Ultimately that leaves Airbus not considering a full 757 replacement any more than Boeing is.
Related, Airbus also continues to rule out the possibility of a 90-seat ATR turboprop. First, says Eccleston “it wasn’t quite as easy as we thought it was going to be,” to create a new one. Second, Airbus isn’t convinced there’s a large enough market in Asia or Europe. That leads Airbus to conclude that “if we’re going to invest our money and engineers we can probably make better money in other investments,” he said. You might wonder why Airbus is saying some awfully controlling things about ATR, but remember that Airbus is a majority shareholder in ATR. Should ATR embark on a new airplane it’ll be largely Airbus engineers (and financial resources) making it happen.