Why The Airbus A220 Is A Real Game Changer For Airlines

Years ago, turbo-prop, business jet, and regional jet manufacturer Bombardier made a critical company decision — to design the first new-from-scratch narrow-body airplane in the 120-160 seat category in over 40 years. The result was called the C-series, and despite the many favorable features of the plane it sold tepidly as Bombardier’s ability to support the jet worldwide was questioned. One lessor, explaining why they were not willing to buy the plane to lease with some smaller airlines, pointed out that it is the second lease that concerned them. Their point was that the worldwide fleet of this plane was still far from certain, and so they were concerned they would get a plane back from lease with no place to re-lease it. Lessors generally do not have this problem with an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737.

Things changed when Airbus made a big decision to buy this aircraft line from Bombardier, and almost overnight sales picked up since airlines around the world understood that Airbus has the worldwide strength to support the plane. Now rebranded as the A220, this plane is on every airline’s radar and one new airline, David Neelman’s Breeze, built a business plan based on the plane. As the most modern mid-size, narrow-body aircraft sold by either Airbus or Boeing, this plane has become a game-changer for five important reasons:

Right Size To Upgauge Regional Jets

Regional jets, often called RJs and usually sized from 50 to 90 seats, have been a mainstay of the airline industry since their introduction in the 1990s. Dubbed by some as “the planes that ALPA built,” these planes could be deployed by the larger U.S. airlines using lower-cost regional airline partners. This was possible because the “scope clauses” in the airlines’ pilot contracts allows the airlines to outsource the flying of aircraft smaller than 100 seats. Made by Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer, these planes first replaced most turbo-prop equipment and then became important for feed to large hubs from smaller and mid-sized cities. At one point, you could fly from South Florida to Northwest Montana on United Airlines by flying an RJ from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago, and connecting to another RJ flying from Chicago to Kalispell.

United recently placed a large order to, in part, replace RJs with larger, 150-seat sized aircraft. But the A220 is better sized for this replacement, and comes with significantly better trips costs than its slightly larger competitors, and comparable seat costs. The jump from 70 seats to 150 seats might be too big for many markets, whereas the jump from 70 to 120 presents much lower risk. It’s not only making small planes bigger, but also making some big planes smaller that will work well for many airlines too. If the smallest plane in your fleet has 150 seats, there are some markets that cannot be profitably served because they cannot generate enough demand to make that trip worth it. In these cases, the A220 offers a passenger experience at least as good, if not better, than the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737, and has the operating economics to make more markets work to grow the route network.

Lighter Weight and Great Engines Means Lower Fuel Burn

The A220 is lighter weight due to its design and materials and this helps to lower the fuel burn and make the plane more efficient. In addition, the specially-designed Pratt & Whitney PW1500G geared turbofan (GTF) engine sips fuel when compared to the engines even on the more modern A320s or 737s. As airlines push to become more sustainable, the A220 represents a path toward the future rather than the reliance on older technology and design.

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In addition to environmental benefits of burning less fuel, this also improves the economics of the airplane in what’s often a volatile fuel price environment. This is also why the new-engine options for both the A320 and 737 have been so popular.

Modern Materials Means Lower Maintenance Costs

The use of composites in the airframe of the A220 and its from-scratch, modern design also mean lower overall maintenance costs for the life of the aircraft. Maintenance represents a large cost for airlines especially as their fleets age, and having some control of this is helpful. As more of the planes are sold and deployed, third-party support will also grow, furthering efficiency of long-term maintenance.

Also, a more modern hull likely will mean fewer opportunities for corrosion and structural failure as the planes age. This could mean a longer service life, and given that this size category is the most commonly deployed in the world, that could mean excellent long-term ownership value. The “second lease” risk goes away quickly.

Perfect For Hub Feed Or Point-To-Point Services

Used to feed large hubs, the A220 is an ideal size and would likely be successful to all but the smallest cities. This could be in the upgauging of smaller regional jets, downsizing larger narrow-body equipment, or launching new service possible with the increased efficiency that the plane offers. Delta Airlines is already using the plane this way.

But a hub operation is not the only mission this plane can support. As Breeze Airways plans, the A220 is the right size for point-to-point services and improves previously uneconomic options. Because of this, likely more low-cost airlines will use this plane to overfly larger airline hubs, and fly nonstop in markets that currently require a hub connection.

The Plane Boeing Or Airbus Would Have Made If They Started from Scratch

It’s not a surprise that the A220 is a step-change improvement from the competitive current capacity in the 120-160 seat category. It is a big risk to design a new airplane, nicely outlined in the classic but still highly relevant book “The Sporty Game” by John Newhouse. It takes years, and hundreds of millions of dollars, to bring a new aircraft to market and what is surprising is that small Bombardier took this risk to develop the airplane.

If Boeing or Airbus had decided to design a new aircraft in this size category rather than re-engine their older successful models, the plane would likely look similar to the A220. Bombardier had good engineers and designers, but they benefitted more from modern technology and just starting more than 40 years after Airbus first began designing the A320. Airbus was able to take advantage of the precarious position of Bombardier, self-inflicted in a way from the design this plane. In doing so, they have gained another advantage over Boeing by having the most modern, efficient airplane for sale in a highly popular size category.

The A220 Is Not For Everyone, Though

There are some challenges in bringing this plane into service for some airlines. Likely crew costs will be higher than comparable regional jets, since the A220 will be “in scope” for most pilot contracts. Also, while the plane is named similarly to to the A320, it does not share crew or maintenance commonality with other Airbus products. So, bringing this plane into a an airline means adding a new aircraft type, which can add complications in many ways. The lowest-cost airlines get their low costs largely from simplification, and bringing in a new aircraft type is counter to that idea. Spirit Airlines proved this case, when they evaluated the A220 but chose instead to buy the Airbus A319NEO. The commonality in crew training and maintenance proved to be a better answer for them than the efficiency of the A220.

Still, the A220 is the best technology commercial aircraft available in its size category, and world airlines will benefit from its deployment. Customers will enjoy the roomy interior and noticeably large windows, operators will enjoy good operations and easy- to-integrate technology, and route planners will appreciate the flexibility the plane allows in network design. If you fly with any regularity, you likely will be boarding an A220 soon.

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