Gulf carriers, which have so far been the biggest drivers of the wide body project, have lost much of their enthusiasm for the big birds

By TravelSmart Bureau

Proceedings at the Paris Air Show showed one certainty about  the wide-bodied aircraft, which has been the subject of much speculation: and that was about continued uncertainty about the future of wide body project. Both Airbus and Boeing claimed new orders for the narrow bodied planes, wide bodies were a total disappointment when it came to orders. Whatever orders had come were by way of firming up of the already placed orders. Both aircraft manufacturers have, in fact, announced cutbacks on production plans.

The biggest disappointment for the wide body projects has come from the Gulf carriers, led by Dubai’s Emirates, which could once be described as the driving force behind the wide body project.  It is pointed out that the big three in the Gulf — Emiratres, Etihad and Qatar Airways – are going through a difficult phase, due to political reasons as well as developments that hamper travel, such as the ban on carrying laptops in flight destined for the US. Added to these is the new diplomatic embargo on Qatar, which has paralysed the small country’s airlines due to flying restrictions. Observers say the Gulf carriers are not in a position to order new planes that will significantly add  to their capacity.

The wide body plans have received further setback as the main customer Emirates has raised certain doubts and demanded changes, some of which may not be very easily acceptable to the manufacturers.

According to aviation sources, Emirates expects Airbus to give it a clear idea of the general future of the A380 program before it will consider another order for the aircraft.

“I want to know what Airbus will do with the aircraft,” Emirates Airline President Tim Clark was quoted as saying on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show. Whatever Airbus decides to do with its struggling widebody “will have major residual value and financial implications for us.” While Emirates is interested in principle in ordering more A380s over time, Clark indicated that the changes alone proposed as part of the A380-plus concept will not do the trick. “They need to put the A380s into other airlines,” he said,

According to observers, Clark’s comments are the clearest indications yet that Emirates is not willing to support the program alone through additional orders, whatever technical improvements Airbus may suggest. Concerns are mounting that Airbus may ditch the program in the not-too-distant future and Clark is certain that other airlines are not going to change their risk-averse attitude toward large aircraft purchases any time soon. “They are not getting the appetite from others,” Clark said.

Emirates is also not fully behind the A380-plus project: Clark does not want to remove the forward staircase from the aircraft, as he regards it as iconic and important for the brand. The removal of the stairs alone would, according to Airbus, free up space for 23 additional seats. Emirates has also voted against an 11-abreast economy section that would allow 20 more seats. Instead, Emirates would be interested in installing winglets as a retrofit on its existing fleet, an option that Airbus currently does not offer.

Emirates has 95 A380s in its fleet, and it is taking five more between now and October. The airline has a total of 142 on firm order, but it does not plan to take any in 2019 and 2020. Clark indicated that any new deal for additional aircraft would have to include the option to upgrade aircraft on order now with some of the A380-plus features.

Emirates pushed Airbus hard to develop the A380neo, which would have included new Rolls-Royce engines developed on the basis of the Trent XWB that currently powers the A350. Clark said Emirates selected the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 in the hope that this would facilitate the launch of the A380neo, while the commercial terms offered by Rolls-Royce and the competing Engine Alliance were very similar.

Separately, Clark said that Emirates will likely add a smaller widebody type to its fleet within the next 5-10 years, either the A350 or the Boeing 787, to reenter thinner medium-haul routes. Emirates canceled an order for 70 A350s in 2014 due to aircraft performance concerns.

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said earlier this year that there is “excess capacity in widebodies as we look to the future of the industry as a whole.” That means many airlines feel they have enough already—Delta and American Airlineshave collectively deferred 32 A350-900s this year—and, if they do need a few in a pinch, there is a surplus of used widebodies available at very attractive prices.

The A321neoLR has a range of 4,000nm while the 737 MAX 7, 8 and 9 all can fly at least 3,500nm. Norwegian is planning to deploy the MAX 8 on transatlantic routes. These extremely efficient aircraft can operate many shorter long-haul routes that were previously only viable with widebodies. So airlines can buy a cheaper aircraft and deploy it at less risk from a capacity standpoint on routes that used to be the province of widebodies. That is making carriers think twice about widebody purchases.

Boeing unveiled details of its potential middle of the market aircraft—the so-called 797—that would enter service in 2025, and could be formally launched within the next year and a half. Boeing said the aircraft will include the use of a fifth-generation composite wing, a “hybrid” composite fuselage, next-generation digital architecture and super-efficient engines. It would have two aisles, seat up to 270 passengers and have a range of more than 5,000nm. If Boeing—and potentially Airbus in response—will be launching a new aircraft by early 2019, why pull the trigger now on an order? If an airline is looking to replace older 757sor 767s on transatlantic routes—as is the case with UnitedAirlines—why place an order when a tantalizing new offering is coming soon?

Finally, at least with the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, many airlines have previously made their new widebody fleet picks and placed their orders. Airbus has more than 850 A350 orders; Boeing north of 1,200 Dreamliner orders. With these orders already placed, there are simply fewer opportunities for Airbus and Boeing in the widebody market compared to the narrowbody market, where startups and low-cost carriers are big players. Much of the current widebody focus, therefore, is on production execution and delivery.


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