Are Large Aircraft dead? Major shift in what airlines want now permanent

AirFrance replacing the A380 with smaller A359’s

In the past year we have seen the end of the the largest commercial aircraft ever built in the A380, its production will cease completely in 2021.

Worse still the A380’s demise has already begun, with the first aircraft already being dismantled and many more heading the same way.

Days are clearly numbered for small fleets of A380’s

Air France, Qatar, Lufthansa have all begun the process of withdrawing theirs from service or have given dates when they will. Emirates are looking at the next 15 years before they too will have phased the type out, an extraordinary pace compared to the 747 that will have spanned 60 years.

The manufacturers were almost excessively excited to announce what appeared to be large orders at Dubai. Boeing claimed an order for 787-9’s but they were actually converted from the vastly larger 777-9 orders.

Boeing managers were said to be horrified at United’s decision to buy the A321XLR as a direct replacement for the 757’s. The price for that however to Airbus was a horrendous deferment of 45 A350-900’s by five years. Now its true United might benefit from the Neo version being proposed, but the chances of them taking delivery are now, frankly minimal.

777-9 could well be the end of large aircraft programs

Boeing have had so few orders for the 777-8 it’s been placed on developmental suspension, indeed its chances of ever being finished are now quite remote. Only two airlines, Qatar and Emirates have ordered any and both have already said they might go with 777-9’s instead.

The world has changed – airlines are looking at the A321XLR – 400 of which have been ordered since its launch at Paris in July 2019, to operate them at low cost and high profit on routes they would never have imagined in the past. They don’t need 787’s or 777-9’s or even A330’s and A350’s to do it and they can fly direct.

What is even worse for the manufacturers is the net increase in wide body orders. This is the actual increase after cancellations, and its just 407 in total. 122 of those for Airbus and 285 for Boeing.

Boeing have barely sold a 777-9 since the year it was launched in 2014, when it netted 277 – it would have been just 127 without Emirates and you need to wonder quite if its worth the development cost even with such a total. If you took away the orders from Etihad and Qatar (and the former may struggle to take them all), only 42 777-9’s are going to non-ME3 airlines.

Both Boeing and Airbus have another problem.

In order to meet wide body customer demand to get aircraft more quickly, and combining that with Boeing’s need to drive stock price and profits, both have ramped up production to quite high levels.

10 A350’s are rolling off the production lines every month and 14 787’s are doing the same . Orders aren’t coming to sustain those delivery rates. Boeing has already announced a cut to 12 by the end of 2020, but even with that it will run out of orders by mid 2023. So further rate cuts are essential, or the end of the line has to be recognised. Running numbers down also means higher per unit costs so a degree of “where does it end” has to be calculated sooner than later. Airbus have not carried out there planned increase to 12 A350’s a month never mind the 14 planned, and probably won’t.

In Airbus’ case the order book is even smaller – at 10 a month the entire order book will be gone – around mid to late 2025.

Neither of the manufacturers is even thinking about what comes afterwards – we’re looking at a world that may not see giant airliners after the 777-9 and A350-1000 end their days.

And that of course puts us right inside the argument over the 797 and the 737MAX. Should Boeing face the reality that a 797 is the future and needs to be brought into the market, or does it face the facts that the MAX, ironically now one of the most tested and examined aircraft in history by the time it goes back in the air, is probably a defunct brand? Its lifespan is limited and single aisles are too important to be ignored – 2030 is too late to replace it.

797-X concept

Airbus are grappling with selling more A321’s – it’s versions cover off its own replacement of older versions, the 757-200 and an explosive expansion in long range single aisle flying. It’s the aircraft of the moment, the one everyone seems to want. Yet it too will need replacing, as will the entire A320 family, by 2030.

A321XLR – 400+ and counting in just 6 months

Airbus may be suffering from its own customer offering with CabinFlex now, but they will resolve its problems with the A321 and this will be a trend – this sort of customisation will become the minimum acceptable to airlines.

Airbus also have to wonder what do they do about the A330? The A338 is a flop and should probably have been dropped, the 797 has been the aircraft of choice in that market. The A339 has done reasonably well, but with just 248 left to deliver and few orders, its going to be exhausted by late 2022.

There comes a time when manufacturers simply have to wonder what comes next. They tend not to discuss it openly, but the reality is, as with everything, rationalisation, simplification and consolidation always win the day. Eventually the number of variations in aircraft types will be reduced yet again.

Sinapore Airlines A350

Large aircraft are dead, if not now, by the end of the 2020’s. Many more smaller, longer ranged more nimble aircraft are the way things are going. Trends like this are irresistible, once under way they take seismic events to alter trajectory.

What do YOU think? Let us know in the comments….