DOHA — At the end of December 2014 Qatar Airways took delivery of the first Airbus A350 XWB, the newest aircraft design to enter service and likely the last clean-sheet wide-body aircraft to be developed for at least a decade. It is a milestone in the commercial aviation market to be sure. It is also, however, arguably a tipping point for Qatar Airways in terms of fleet planning and aircraft deployment.
The current Qatar Airways fleet is diverse, to say the least. The company notes proudly that it is the only airline to have operated every type offered by Airbus. The A300 and A310 are no longer in the fleet, but the A320 family is well represented as is the A330. The A340 and A380 are smaller players in the operation but they are present, to say noting of the Boeing 777 also flying under the Qatari flag.
Getting to the current fleet configuration appears to be more the result of choosing destinations and then aircraft to serve them, rather than focusing on a simple, limited fleet. As the A350 deliveries begin, however, it seems that the airline is changing that plan. It will now take in large numbers of a much smaller variety of aircraft types, simplifying operations while also increasing the size of the fleet and the range of cities which can be reached from its hub in Doha.
Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, spoke to this point during the A350 introduction press conference in Doha. He noted that the carrier is pursuing an aggressive schedule of aircraft replacement while also acknowledging that some diversity in the fleet remains necessary, “Each aircraft has a specific mission that it fits best in…. During eight years we will already be replacing airplanes, including the 787. We have a fleet rollover program to always have the latest aircraft…. We always keep moving forward.”
Currently the Boeing 777 is the most represented passenger aircraft in the company’s fleet, with just under 40 flying. In the coming decade 80 A350s will be delivered. Even with the aggressive fleet rollover program, this represents both a significant expansion of the fleet in terms of total number of aircraft while also a reduction in aircraft diversity.
Limiting the number of aircraft types in the fleet should result in a more streamlined operation for the carrier, so long as it can still serve all the markets it wants to reach. And the range of the A350 will allow for such a simplification, something which the A380 or the 777 fleet does not currently allow for.
As for deploying the A350s, the initial plan includes a mix of cities, large and small. Al Baker indicated that the A350 is going to both replace the A330s in his fleet as well as up-gauge service in many current 787 destinations, “We will deploy them to New York. We will deploy them to the secondary cities in Europe where at the moment we are operating the 787s. And, of course, to the sub-continent and Far East. Because, of course, this aircraft will be replacing our A330s.”
The 787s will either be replaced, as noted earlier, or redeployed to serve Africa and other secondary cities, even as the current collection of secondary cities sees larger aircraft as well.
Does this spell the end for narrow-body aircraft at the company? Probably not. There are still a number of destinations which will continue to see service from the A320 family and Al Baker indicated that, either due to limited demand or because of limited capacity allowances based on bilateral agreements, the smaller types will continue to have a place in the company’s operation and the 80 outstanding orders, mostly for the A320neo family, should keep the narrow-body operation running for some time.
As for the Boeing 777X order outstanding, it would appear based on Al Baker’s comments that these, too, will be part of a fleet renewal program just as much as they will be for expansion. The company clearly intends to grow the number of seats in markets where that is viable; putting A350s where A330s used to be will make that happen quite quickly. Similarly the 777X can up-gauge existing 777 routes and help to keep the fleet fresh going forward.