757 v A321neo v 797-X; so many comparisons but the big picture is different

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The last 757

I have found my inbox deluged with vaguely written and often mindless comparisons between the long out of production 757, the A321neo/LR/XLR and the not yet formally announced Boeing NMA dubbed the 797-X by hopeful enthusiasts, largely on the basis its the only number not yet used.

Let’s be radical here. Immediately, right now, stop even thinking about the 757. It’s dead and its going to fall rapidly out of service as it reaches old age. The first 757’s entered service in 1983, the 1,050th and last example, a 757-200 built for Shanghai Airlines, rolled off the production line at the Renton factory on October 28, 2004. So even the youngest in-service aircraft is now nearly 15 years old. Their economics are declining rapidly and the cost of maintenance is beginning to outweigh their daily viability. None of this is unusual. On top of that what was economical in 1983 and even 2001, is not considered even close to acceptable now. As a passing statistic, almost all of those built were 752’s, only 55 were the 753.

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Market conditions have also changed, and that’s why the A321neo, in all four versions (three, the CEO, NEO and LR are already available, with the XLR likely at Paris in a couple of weeks), is offering up pretty much every market that needs it, what they want.

The 737Max has run into a brick wall range wise, never mind reputation. It’s lack of capability, compromised as it is by its ancient base design, simply doesn’t meet requirements on long thin routes. In the vast majority of cases its just replacing older versions of itself.

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This is where the A321neo family shines. But it’s far from invincible. The weakness is the same issue – old base design, no matter the huge changes and tweaks that have been made to the airframe, technologies and wings since inception.

The answer to the airlines dreams is NMA. Yet even that will fit into a different overall niche. It’ll surpass the A321 platform but they’ll have points of similarity and cross-over that will be areas of competition.

The problem will be the NMA’s cost, which will be far higher than the old A321 platform, and the 6 year delay to service entry, if it goes to plan. Airlines are just as likely to order both, and if Airbus play their cards right, with no new ground-up airframe currently under development, they could just as easily steal away the 737’s crown all over again, by building the A320 series 21st Century replacement well ahead of Boeing for the 737.

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Both groups have made it clear they’re not prepared to undertake more than one major development programme at a time – the 777-8/9 is just about to enter service within 12 months, the NMA is in design and proposal sign off by airlines, with full development due to start as 777-8/9 winds down into production.

The A320, A330 and A350’s are all pretty much at the end of their design and development phases with all in production, so a new project has to be on the cards for Airbus. There’s only two that make sense – a new A320 or A330. The later would be tilting directly at the NMA, the former surely has to make more sense.

So while the NMA will see Boeing steal an existing and partly new market – especially the mid-ranked town/city airports not on hubs to others in a similar situation, on hub-to non- hub thin routes, the A321neo versions are likely to carry on holding their own. They both have a place in the coming years, so any argument as to which is best is pointless and unhelpful. Every airline will judge it on their ideas of perfection, so comparison, again isn’t worthy.

There is also an environmental price to pay for aircraft like this. The trend has been and continues to be, a desire for fewer passengers more frequently rather than one aircraft once per day taking everyone who wants that destination at one time. The 747/A380 types – even to a small degree the lack of sales of the 777-8/9 and A350, show that big aircraft are not the future. The only problem is it takes more resources to fly fewer people more frequently – both in terms of material, and fuel, than it does with one flight once a day.

It may bring more people into the market in more places, but the cost is going to be high, and likely to undo the savings in fuel and emissions that more modern aircraft have achieved, by increasing the number of flights.  Its like low-fat food – it may have half the calories, but if you eat twice as much it’s not going to make a difference.

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