MIAMI — To many travelers, a plane is a plane — a means to an end. Just get me where I need to go, safely, cheaply, and comfortably. But not all planes are created equally, and with the influx of new or updated narrow body aircraft types, passengers are benefiting from this historic variety. Airways is here to help you navigate your way through these new options.
After Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas in 1996, the narrowbody aircraft market has been dominated by the Airbus A320 family and Boeing’s 737 series, but new players are stepping in with hopes of a major disruption. With very few exceptions, airlines are no longer keeping to a single manufacturer, single type fleet and are acquiring planes to fit a very certain niche in their networks. But now, countries including Brazil, Canada, Japan and Russia have been developing their own jets in hopes of competing on the world stage.
Bombardier CS100 & CS300
Canada’s Bombardier has been making smaller regional jets for quite a while, but its new CSeries have put them in the ring with the big boys. After a troubled and delayed testing program, the new CS100 finally achieved its first delivery to Swiss International Airlines in July.
Frankly, the CSeries has struggled to achieve sales, but has been buoyed by a strongly discounted sale to Delta Air Lines of 75 CS100s with options of up to 50 more, plus Delta may decide to convert some orders to the CS300 if they so choose.
Upon ordering the CSeries, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said, “These new aircraft are a solid investment, allowing us to take advantage of superior operating economics, network flexibility and best-in-class fuel performance… It is an absolute widebody feel on a narrowbody.” Delta president Glen Hauenstein added, “I think it’s going to be one of the most comfortable aircraft we’ll have in our fleet, if not the most comfortable.”
It’s surprising to see the CSeries has struggled to obtain orders. It’s seat capacity fills a gap, between the upper end of the traditional regional jet, and the lower end of the A320 / 737 class. Bombardier does have the ability to stretch the plane for a potential 150-seat CS500 model, with a common wing design. But at this point that would be years away.
The capacity would put it in the same playing field as Boeing’s 737 MAX-7 and the Airbus A319neo. Though at this point, neither of the latter two planes have sold well, so Bombardier may find it in their best interest to avoid the additional development costs for a CS500.
From the passenger point of view, the new CS100 cabin is being hailed as one of the most comfortable in the skies at the economy level, thanks to its generous seat width — 18.5 inches at the window and aisle, and 19 inches in the dreaded middle seat. Perhaps the middle seat will now become coveted, or at least less dreaded. Business class seats will be configured 2-2 in each row, and 2-3 in economy, with a 20-inch aisle.
The cabin cross section is 10 feet, 9 inches wide, allowing for that fifth economy seat in each row. Zodiac Aerospace is the supplier for the CS100’s interiors, monuments, overhead bins, galleys, and lavatories. Zodiac also offers seats for the CS100, along with ZIM Flugsitz. Swiss chose the ZIM seats for their CS100s.
Sukhoi SuperJet SSJ100
Next, we have the most senior entrant into the ring, the one with the most-established record — The Sukhoi SSJ 100. In development for five years, it achieved its first firm order in 2005, It first flew in 2008, back when the MRJ was just barely on the drawing board. The former Soviet-bloc nation is by no means a stranger to commercial aviation to much of the world, but no U.S. airline has ever flown their jets. Interestingly, Boeing served as a consultant on the plane during its design phase.
The first production SSJ100 was delivered to Armenian airline, Armavia in April, 2011. That airline has since gone bankrupt. Russia’a Aeroflot received their first SSJ 100 two months later, and remains the largest operator. The best chance to fly the SSJ 100 in North America is with Mexican airline Interjet.
Though it is Russian-designed, many parts were designed and supplied by American firms, including its electronics, wheels & brakes, hydraulics, and APU. Its engine is the PowerJet SaM 146. PowerJet is a design collaboration between France’s Snecma (Safran) and NPO Saturn of Russia. Final assembly is done in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, in south eastern Russia.
Ilya Tarasenko, President of Sukhoi Civil Aircraft spoke about the plane’s efficiency, saying, “The aircraft shows its benefits against the competitors with outstanding characteristics of operational efficiency and reliability. We firmly believe that the SSJ100 will help take their business strategy to new heights on the competitive European aviation market.”
Ireland’s CityJet took delivery of their first SSJ 100 in May. At the delivery ceremony, Pat Byrne, Executive Chairman of CityJet said, “The delivery of our first SSJ100 is an important milestone for CityJet as we begin our fleet renewal program. This is a fantastic aircraft and we look forward to introducing our customers to its high levels of comfort and efficiency in the coming years.” The CityJet aircraft is in the 98-seat configuration and 32-inch seat pitch, with an exclusive interior designed by Pininfarina.
Inside the SSJ 100, it has roomy 18.2-inch seats, configured in 3-2 rows, along with 83.5 inches of standing room in the aisle — only three inches shorter than the 737 cabin. The aisle is 20 inches across, and the full cabin width is 10.6 feet wide. It is the largest cabin in the 100-seat market, which would appeal to most passengers. Much of the cabin design and construction was done by B/E Aerospace, including passenger seats, galleys, lavatories, sidewalls, and interior structures.
Embraer E-Jet E2 Family Aircraft
Brazil’s Embraer has been producing mid-size jets the longest, with their E-series jets. And now, Embraer is in the final stages of producing an update to their midsize jet program, launched over a decade ago.
The new “E2” family will comprise the E175-E2, the smallest member of the family, the E190-E2, and the stretched E195-E2.
In the cabin, the E2 jets will feature 2-2 seating, a 19.7-inch wide aisle, 18.3-inch wide seats, and a 79-inch height from floor to ceiling. The total usable cabin width is nine feet. The cabin was designed by London-based design firm PriestmanGoode, which has worked on upscale interiors for Air France, Qatar Airways, and United.
The E2 aircraft make gains in the popular series by implementing Pratt & Whitney’s new PW1700G or PW1900G geared turbofan engines, along with upgraded avionics by Honeywell. Their E195 is the largest, seating up to 132 in a single class — still smaller than Airbus and Boeing’s smallest offerings. And Embraer has been smart to avoid going head-to-head with Airbus and Boeing in the same product category. The E-190 E2 made its first public appearance at the Farnborough Airshow in July, less than forty-five days after its first flight. It’s expected to enter service in the first half of 2018.
The E2 also features a unique, staggered Business class configuration, with the aisle seat on each row set back significantly from the window seat on one side of the cabin, with single seats on the other side of the aisle.
At this year’s Farnborough Air Show, John Slattery, Embraer’s president and CEO of Commercial Aviation shared that E2 jets had acquired have 272 firm orders and 398 Letters of Intent to purchase, options and purchase rights. Embraer expressed disappointment over Bombardier’s cheap sales to Delta and Air Canada, after having received subsidy money from the Canadian government, and said they were looking into an investigation through the World Trade Organization.
Mitsubishi Regional Jet MRJ90
The newest player on the market is Japanese firm, Mitsubishi. As of the company’s June newsletter, there are currently two flying prototypes of the brand new MRJ90 jet, with two other aircraft planned to begin flying this summer. Its first production aircraft is also undergoing final assembly at their production facility in Nagoya, Japan. They’re being powered by Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan engines.
Inside the MRJ90 cabin, it’s designed to hold up to 92 seats in an all-economy layout, with only 29 inches of seat pitch — which most would consider tight. This hasn’t stopped Eastern, SkyWest and Trans States from ordering 170 of the planes, combined. The aisle will be 18 inches wide, with 80 inches of head room, and the seats will be 18.5 inches wide, and configured 2-2 in each row. The overall cabin width is 108.5 inches, and the overhead bins will be large enough for 22-inch carry on bags.
Mitsubishi has also selected Zodiac as its seat and cabin furnishings supplier, in spite of Zodiac’s highly publicized production delays and issues with major airlines, including American. I spoke to company president Lee Human last August regarding Zodiac’s issues, and he expressed faith in the MRJ fittings being delivered on time.
Airways had the opportunity to check out the MRJ cabin mockup in Farnborough, and its design could be best described as conservative.
Domestically, airline customers are concerned over what are known as scope clauses within their pilots’ contracts. The MRJ90 is just a bit overweight and seats a few too many people to fit the currently-defined “regional jet” in their contracts. So in order to take delivery, the planes would have to be flown by mainline pilots, which would cost airlines more, or contracts would have to me amended. Most of the MRJ’s flight testing will be done in the U.S. at a brand new facility located at Moses Lake, Washington.
Tokyo-based Japan Airlines (JAL) has a firm order for thirty-two MRJs, scheduled to begin deliveries in 2021. In JAL’s order announcement, JAL President Yoshiharu Ueki said, “JAL will operate the MRJ as the key aircraft of its regional jet fleet, and remains committed to providing the best services to our customers by achieving steady network expansions and improving products and services quality. As a network carrier that also operates regional jets, we are contributing to the birth of Japan’s first passenger jet.”
The company is also planning a shorter MRJ70 model and possibly a stretched MRJ100 model, to enter service later this decade. Though Japan has been a major supplier in aviation for decades, the MRJ will be its first commercial jet. It was originally scheduled to enter service in 2013, but design changes forced delays in the program.
And the winner is…
Going head to head, (and keeping in mind that only the CS100 and SSJ 100 are in airline service at this time) in our somewhat subjective verdict, we have to award the CS100 top marks for its seat width of up to 19 inches, which is unparalleled in any other economy seat throughout the industry. Its 20-inch aisle width also makes it the leader in the class, and will result in fewer bruised elbows. SWISS gave its CS100 seats 30 inches of pitch, which is average for a U.S. airline, and generous compared to some European carriers. This of course will differ airline to airline. The tall cabin, wide aisle, and larger windows additionally make this an easy choice.
We have the SSJ 100 & E-Jet E2 in a tie for second place. The SSJ has above average 18.5 inch-wide seats, 30-32 inch pitch, roomy 20-inch aisle, and class leading 83.5-inch height clearance in the aisle. Airways has flown the SSJ 100, and found the PowerJet SaM 146 engines to be noticeably louder than other aircraft in its class. Noise is obviously a significant factor in the ability of a passenger to enjoy their flight.
Passenger experience expert Jason Rabinowitz shared that while he hasn’t flown either the CS100 or SSJ 100, he would choose the CS100 if given the opportunity, for its passenger-related innovations, including “wider seats, larger windows, and even the little overhead screen that displays the flight map are innovations that show Bombardier was looking to improve the entire experience, and not just slapping a new engine on an existing frame.”
The Embraer E-Jet E2 family aircraft on the other hand has its advantages with a quieter cabin and a 2-2 configuration guaranteeing each passenger a window or aisle seat. While the aircraft is not yet in airline service, some cabin elements seen call us the attention. For example, the CSeries and SSJ 100 have structural supports under the seat, which reduce the space for the passenger’s feet. This is something that the E-Jets E2s do not have, thanks to a modern design slimline seat, which offers more leg room when compared to the SSJ and MRJ seats. The E2 also happens to have the most modern feel, thanks to the design by PriestmanGoode.
Finally, the MRJ90, which despite offering 18.5-inch wide seats, 18-inch aisle and 80-inch head room, has the smallest baggage bin space and at least in mockup form – the least innovative and aesthetically pleasing cabin . From a utility perspective, the MRJ cannot offer carry-on bag space for every passenger. (However, this is one of the features in the Embraer E2 family aircraft).
Although the MRJ90 is not in service yet, the manufacturer plans to install 88 seats in the plane, giving an average 31-inch pitch. MRJ had previously planned to install 92 seats, which would have given a 29-inch pitch. The reduction gives passengers extra room, and reduces the weight of the plane, creating better operational fuel economy.
There is no doubt that these up-and-coming manufacturers are looking to encroach on the turf of Airbus and Boeing, but it will take decades if they’re ever going to gain a significant share of the narrowbody market. Rabinowitz believes the CS300 will be the only true challenger, because the others are so much smaller in passenger capacity.
Boeing had a head start of thirty-one years in producing narrow-body planes, beginning with the 707. But as the years have passed, the Airbus A320 family has gained market share over Boeing’s 737. In fact, for the newest generation, the A320neo has outsold the 737 MAX every year but 2012.
Airbus was first to market with the NEO and has outsold the MAX by over 1,300 orders to date.