Back to Blogging after Belfast: Musings, Mumblings but no Grumblings

Last week I had the great privilege to spend some time in my favourite country, Ireland. I flew on a Continental Airlines Boeing 757 from Newark to Belfast to attend Bombardier’s pre-Farnborough briefing, and then took the train down to Dublin for a day of expensive fun (such a shame that the dollar is about as valuable as used toilet paper). The entire trip was rather eye opening on a number of levels.

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A cropped pic of my tired self and Flight news editor Dan Thisdell at the Bombardier event

While I loathe all but a few of the now commonplace travel blogs that detail the rage-inducing missteps of airlines, I find that I must comment on my Continental service experience – because it was so good! The carrier, God bless it, appears to be really trying to separate itself from the pack – both literally and figuratively.

I don’t think anybody jumps up and down in glee at the prospect of flying a 757 on a transatlantic route. But last summer Continental began retrofitting its 757 economy cabins with Panasonic IFE to make the ride a little easier. Although the exercise is not quite finished (the aircraft flying the Newark-Belfast leg didn’t have it), a little bit of seat-back entertainment made such a difference on the Dublin-Newark flight. For those of us in the back row, placing a plastic cup over one’s earphones worked as noise-cancelling devices. Note to earphone makers – surely you’ve got something better in the offing?

More importantly, however, the Continental flight attendants both on the inbound and outbound trip were, perhaps, the friendliest, most accommodating group I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting (they weren’t carrying the fake-smile-smugness of so many others). Could it be that Continental staffers – well attendants at least – are genuinely content? Oh yes, one attendant happily reported. He also expressed gratitude that management has decided to keep Continental independent rather than push forward with a tie-up with United, and suggested that Continental simply snatch up the good assets when/if United goes out of business.

United last month announced it had grown its first quarter loss by $253 million year-over-year to $537 million. The company had cash and equivalents of $2.4 billion at the end of March compared with $3.1 billion the previous year. Consolidation, said CEO Glenn Tilton at the time, is one of many changes needed in this environment.

Spearheading this activity, of course, is the planned merger of Delta and Northwest. Mused one friendly attendant in so many words: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Double ouch.

So what in the world does all of this have to do with Bombardier? Well, you can be sure that they are keeping a keen eye on how consolidation plays out in the USA. Delta and Northwest each boasts regional feeders with significant CRJ fleets. While not addressing these mainline operators specifically, Bombardier Business Aircraft president Steve Ridolfi in Belfast said he believes that 100-seaters will be operated by US regionals as early as next year “as some of our customers take CRJ1000 into their fleets”.

One of my pilot friends disagrees with Ridolfi’s assessment. “The concession stand is closed. There is NO WAY that any union representing a major airline in this country would allow the out-sourcing of a 100-130 seat airplane.”

Time will tell, as they say. What now appears perfectly clear, however, is that bigger is better in the current economic climate.

As I reported today for Air Transport Intelligence, still further evidence that 50-seaters are playing a rapidly waning role in the USA emerged last week when Bombardier predicted the entire industry would require delivery of just 500 aircraft in the 20- to 59-seat range between now and 2027, a full 500-aircraft decrease from the long-term forecast released by the airframer last year.

The USA boasts a massive fleet of aircraft in this range, yet many US majors are keen to reduce these feeder operations as radically high fuel prices continue to bite into their bottom lines. “The trend is toward ‘larger smaller aircraft’ in our case, says Bombardier Commercial Aircraft president Gary Scott.“Seventy-seaters are replacing 50-seaters and 90-seaters are replacing 70-seaters. The dynamics in the industry are really driving the movement up in size.”

Bombardier Aerospace VP, strategy and business development Mairead Lavery notes that the manufacturer is transitioning “to a more international customer base that features less emphasis on the USA”.

As Bombardier’s market expectations for smaller aircraft diminish, the firm’s forecast for types in the 60-99-seat and 100-149-seat sectors has improved. Taking into account its reassessment of all three market segments, Bombardier now expects demand for 20- to 149-seat to reach about 12,900 new aircraft, valued at $528 billion, from 2008 to 2027. This represents a net increase in demand for a total 1,700 airliners in the 20-year period.

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