The aviation industry is focused on innovating to reduce jetlag, maximize seating capacity and bring premium to the masses.
Is bigger better?
For a time, aviation was all about as big as you can get – from the Boeing 747 jumbo jet in the 1970s to the A380 in the 2000s, airlines wanted to provide everything they could for passengers from economy to First Class.
But things have changed.
Recently Airbus announced tweaks to its A380 superjumbo that is about squeezing in more passengers and extending the aircraft’s range to raise the economics of operating it.
Some of the changes included remodeled wingtips that would offer four per cent better fuel economy, a redesign of the plane’s grand staircase that leads upstairs and a new configuration in economy class that would see a cabin in a 3-5-3 format offering 11-abreast seating.
While the European manufacturer said personal space wouldn’t be compromised because the seat width would still be 18-inches, squeezing in 11 people across an A380 is getting tight – and who would want to be in the middle of the middle section?
With the A380’s largest customer Emirates suggesting recently it may not take more of the giant jets beyond its order for 47 more – taking its A380 fleet size to a huge 142 aircraft – it raises the question of the program’s future.
Similarly, Boeing’s sales of the Boeing 747-8 have been sluggish, with only a handful of airlines (Air China, Korean Air and Lufthansa) ordering and operating the passenger version that’s an extended and enhanced version of the successful Boeing 747-400.
Airlines have instead been opting for lightweight and modern twinjets such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350, which are starting to reach across the world faster and further than before, and more often than not, without needing to stop.
Early 2018, Qantas’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner is to commence direct flights between Perth and London, offering the first direct flights ever between Australia and Europe.
The Kangaroo Route (as the journey between Australia and the United Kingdom is known) once took four days involving seven stops and soon it will be a 17-hour hop away.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 are undoubtedly the greatest experiences passengers have ever had in the sky – and that’s not because of flatbed seats or the quality of the food and wine, according to Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.
“The Dreamliner is an aircraft built for comfort,” Joyce said. “The windows are bigger, it helps reduce jetlag, it’s extremely quiet and there’s a system that smooths out turbulence. Customers are going to love it.”
Stretched versions of the two modern jets have been on display at the Paris Air Show, with Boeing’s 787-10 capable of flying 330 people as far as 11,910 km and the Airbus A350-1000 offering 366 seats and 14,800 kilometers of range.
Boeing’s 777 range, which effectively replaced the Boeing 747, has been a hit since it was launched and has proven to be a huge success, 1750 aircraft ordered and 1,360 delivered.
Airbus’ A330, which generally operates missions of up to 12 hours, has been a popular aircraft for mid-range flying and with up to 277 passengers on-board.
Efficiencies at scale
Twinjets are a good example of where the aviation industry is heading at present: smaller, more efficient aircraft (than the A380 or B747) are cheaper to buy and to operate and present airlines with a unique opportunity to offer medium- and long-haul shuttle services, as is the case with Cathay Pacific between Australia and Hong Kong (four flights a day from Sydney to Hong Kong alone) and Singapore Airlines as well, which operates five daily Sydney flights.
What passengers want is not one larger aircraft that operates only once per day, but flights at times that suit. Air New Zealand also do this between Auckland and the United States, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has previously flagged ‘shuttle’ flights across the Pacific once the Dreamliners join the fleet.
Airlines also aren’t jamming passengers into the aircraft. The Qantas 236-seat configuration for the Dreamliner is well below the 280 maximum it can take, while Singapore Airlines will outfit new ultra long range Airbus A350-9s with an expected 170-seats for new direct flights to New York in 2018.
Premium focus for business travellers
Less seats and more flights aren’t coming at a compromise for the product onboard though, with airlines globally launching new flatbed seats in First and Business Class, while also offering a new product in Premium and enhanced offerings in Economy.
Qantas’ Dreamliners will feature the airline’s new Business Class seat, successfully rolled-out onto the A330s alongside a brand new Premium Economy cabin that features a 10 per cent wider seat and a larger recline than what’s currently on offer.
Premium is a hot cabin globally and it shows no signs of slowing down. Air New Zealand is in the process of increasing the number of Premium seats on its Boeing 787s and Boeing 777s, while the recently introduced Premium Economy Singapore Airlines cabin has been a huge success.
Corporate flyers know too well why Premium is such a hit, thanks to many company travel policies that won’t allow execs to fly at the pointy end of the plane. It is a great product globally and although you’re giving up a flatbed seat, you are getting larger and better meals, the same wines, headphone and blankets as Business Class and the always delightful glass of bubbles on boarding.
The cabin has been a success in Australasia (Air New Zealand, Qantas and Virgin Australia), Asia (Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, JAL, and ANA), Europe (British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and more) and it remains puzzling why the big ‘Middle Eastern three’ – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar – are all still yet to launch a premium economy product.
Emirates CEO Tim Clark has flagged the potential launch of the product going forward and given the load factors for the cabins on other airlines globally, it has to be under consideration.
In the meantime, Premium will only get better as airlines continue to increase the perks, and up the ante on the food and beverage and sleeper service products.
Lower cost flights
Corporates are also the winners as a result of low cost airlines like Jetstar, Scoot, Cebu Pacific, Tigerair, Air Asia X and others launching a proliferation of new routes into and out of Australia.
Those airlines have also forced the legacy carriers to reduce their pricing and you can now regularly see deals like $599 to Shanghai from Sydney.
Being able to pay low cost pricing for full service carriers is something that won’t go away and the more that start flying to Australia, the lower airfares will continue to go.
Doing business in the air
Qantas and Virgin Australia have been trialing inflight WiFi on domestic flights of late and after the offering being available in the United States for the best part of the last decade, it’s finally coming to our shores.
The new product now available should result in the most reliable WiFi service travellers have ever seen, unlike some offerings on carriers globally that can be slow, will regularly drop-out and can cost over $30 a flight.
Aviation lounge trends
Then there are the airline lounges. Alongside hub-busting planes and premium economy cabins, the global upgrading of lounges has made travel much smoother for corporates.
Being able to have a shower, a full restaurant-quality dinner and premium wines and cocktails before hopping on a night flight makes the journey so much easier.
Look for major upgrades across the United States at present by American and United Airlines, while Qantas’ highly anticipated new Heathrow lounge is set to open in October this year.
Air New Zealand recently upgraded its three Australian lounges in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney that saw the introduction of open kitchen cooking stations; while Cathay Pacific’s new The Pier First Class lounge in Hong Kong has a separate world-class restaurant and cocktail bar, relaxation suites and spacious shower rooms.