Widebodies not just
for long haul
With great fanfare at the end of March, Qantas launched the first non-stop air service between Australia and the UK. Covering 14,500km in a little over 17 hours in a 236-seat 787-9, the flight from Perth to London is one of the longest commercial routes in the world (vying with Qatar’s Doha-Auckland service).
This is a far cry from the original “kangaroo” route, which took four days with seven intermediary stops. Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce stated “Qantas has been preparing for this moment for 98 years… since we were founded in 1921”. Qantas would probably prefer to be able to operate London to Sydney non-stop. But at 17,000km that is still unlikely to be commercial for some years yet; and it is 1,500km further than Singapore-New York, which SIA struggled to operate profitably but is planning to reopen this winter using its new A350-900ULR (with only 162 seats).
This is the ultimate expression of the widebody aircraft: to allow the carriage of passengers on long haul routes in the most efficient way; to have the structure to carry the payload and the fuel needed; to get safely with all the payload to the end of the route. For the airline operator the widebody is a very expensive aluminium can: and the greater the utilisation, the more efficient the operation and the better likelihood of underlying profitability.
However, long-haul operations are a small part of the total industry: 90% of all seats flown are operated on routes of less than 4,000km. Of widebody operations, only 50% of all flights worldwide are operated on segments with stage lengths greater than 4,000km, and 30% of flights by widebody aircraft are on routes of less than 2,000km.
There are many reasons why an operator would want to use a widebody on short-medium haul routes. Firstly, it may be part of a “tagged” route which, while not particularly profitable can be a legitimate way to open access to new markets. Secondly, there may be operational reasons: it may make sense to use the aircraft on a short local sector to avoid keeping it on the ground, either because of curfew and timezone differences or because of parking constraints at a home base airport. Thirdly, it may be that the extra seating capacity is required on relatively dense short haul routes with existing high frequencies. Fourthly it may be that the operator only has widebody aircraft available.
There are some major differences by region. The chart shows the deployment of widebody equipment by stage length by operators based in four regions: North East Asia (including Japan, South Korea and Greater China), Middle East, Europe and North America.
The data for North East Asia shows that nearly 60% of all that region’s operators' widebody flights are operated on sectors of less than 2,000km.
A large portion of this refers to the Japanese domestic market, where high density routes and capacity constraints lead to a need for high seating capacity aircraft (in the 1970s Boeing developed a short range 747 specifically for that market, with a design life encompassing twice as many take-offs and landings as the original version). In 2017 37% of all domestic Japanese seats were flown on widebody aircraft which accounted for 19% of all flights (compared with 2% of seats and 1% of flights in the US domestic market) although this is down from 55% and 30% respectively in 2010.
However, the number of routes involving core domestic Chinese routes has been increasing as the domestic market has grown strongly: 11 of the top 25 routes shown in the chart involve destinations in China, Hong Kong and Taipei; for example 80% of the seats between Beijing and Shanghai (a sector length of around 1,000km) are operated on widebodies.
The data for the carriers in the Middle East is also unusual: 46% of all widebody flights are operated on stage lengths of less than 4,000km and 27% on less than 2,000km.
Much of this could be a result of the widebody operating strategies of the Superconnectors (and particularly Emirates, which had the shortest route — at 349km — operated using an A380 between Dubai and Doha at least until the blockade of Qatar). Here the question maybe the need to reposition aircraft — Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha get congested at peak waves. Also each of the Superconnectors operate tagged (and circular) routes at the end of long haul sectors.
North America and Europe
For North America and Europe the data shows what one would expect to be a normal distribution weighted to the longer haul: 67% of widebody flights by carriers in North America, and 80% by carriers in Europe are operated on sectors greater than 4,000km.
For each of the two regions there is a peak of operations between 5-10,000km reflecting the importance of the North Atlantic.
For interest we also ran this data exercise for the schedules in 1994. At that time the chart for European operators showed a remarkable similarity to the current position for the Middle East carriers. But that was an era of A300s, pre Channel Tunnel or high speed trains, and before the onset of European deregulation.
MOMA or another solution?
There is a valid need for high density aircraft on short-medium haul routes, but the widebodies currently in production that can provide the seating capacity seem to be designed for maximum operational efficiency on longer haul operations. Some operators may decide that older fully depreciated large equipment may efficiently be used profitably on shorter sectors.
Boeing has been debating the possible development of the middle-of-the-market (MOMA) or new mid range aircraft (NMA) to fill in the perceived gap between capabilities of the top of its 737 MAX and the bottom of its 787 series and replace the ageing 767 and 757. Whether the programme goes ahead, twin-aisle or single, or a further modification to existing models, will no doubt depend on discussions with potential customers. Airbus appears to consider that the A321neoLR fulfils the range capability.