If the contest for Republic Airways Holdings’ narrowbody order had not been a contest, and merely involved a creatively financed, unchallenged arrangement between the US carrier and Bombardier, then it is safe to say that the aviation industry would not exactly be buzzing about the CSeries, and Airbus and Boeing would not be evaluating the resilience of their current narrowbody hives.
But the competition for Republic’s business was real. Bombardier pitted its 110- to 130-seat Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW1500G geared turbofan-powered CSeries against members of the most successful narrowbody programmes in history, and emerged triumphant, with a firm order for 40 CSeries CS300s plus 40 options, which when coupled with previously secured firm orders and options from Lufthansa and Irish lessor LCI equates to a total of 180 CSeries commitments.
So begins my new feature about the CSeries entitled ‘Suddenly Serious’, which is running in this week’s Flight International pre-Farnborough issue, the one we affectionately call ‘the fattie’ due to its sizable girth. My feature looks at why Bombardier’s CSeries is now a real threat to Airbus and Boeing’s narrowbody families, and what the two airframers are doing about it.
Boeing expects to make a final decision this year on re-engining the 737 or opting for a clean-sheet replacement of its narrowbody family, while Airbus is formally evaluating the P&W geared turbofan with CFM International’s Leap X high-bypass turbofan under a proposed new engine option (NEO) for the A320. Airbus does not envisage any all-new single-aisle being viable before 2025.
But will new engines fitted to current models be enough to counter the CSeries threat? And should Airbus and Boeing give some serious thought to really changing up the cabin design by offering a twin-aisle configuration?
That I even dare to ask the question might seem crazy to some. After all, airlines all over the world are refurbishing aircraft – or plan to do so – in order to pack more 3+3 rows into their A320s and 737s, certainly not less.
“On a 150 seat airplane at one-class configuration such as JetBlue, eliminating 25 seats instantly increases CASM by 16.6%. Ryanair would lose 32 or 33 seats, depending on which side of the aircraft is affected. This would be a 17.4% boost in CASM. American Airlines on its higher-density 737-800 would see a 16.6% increase in CASM. The airlines simply are not going to accept this kind of CASM increase plus the revenue loss,” notes industry expert Scott Hamilton.
But for argument’s sake, let’s just say there exists some airlines that want a more passenger pleasing aircraft – one that can accomplish faster turn times than a single-aisle plane – and are willing to sacrifice some capacity to do so. We actually don’t have to walk too far down memory lane to discover that airframers have considered meeting these carriers’ wishes.
Indeed, it wasn’t very long ago that Boeing was mulling twin-aisles configurations for its 737 successor. At the Paris air show in 2005, Boeing’s Alan Mulally (now of Ford fame) said apropos a 737 replacement that a new family could have “three different fuselages, with one or two aisles, and be any size between 80 and 220 seats”.
An avid aerospace industry observer and media specialist says:
“Boeing received patents in late 2004 covering a small twin-aisle layout accommodating from less than 100 to 200 pax, shortly after which it put out a statement: ‘There is no significant activity at Boeing in support of this particular configuration at this time…’ (which is the same as Nixon saying, as he did: ‘No member of White House staff presently employed…’).
“I believe the patent Includes 2 + 3 + 2 formation in a 14-row, two-class cabin, which results in a low-fineness ratio (ie stumpy) A318-or-worse look at the bottom end (98 seats). Now, remembering the Boeing mantra about 20% steps between variants and you get a family of 98-, 119-, 140- (or 147-), and 168- (or 175-), or even 203- (or 210) seat capacities.
“Forget another Boeing mantra – the one about aircraft not getting bigger – and sacrifice the market for the smallest two variants to Bombardier and Embraer (and the other wannabes), add a (new) fourth variant a la 737/A320 families to get 238 (or 245) pax, which oh-so-neatly covers the stretched 757 cabin capacity, and, hey presto, you feed straight into the 787 market (even I think replicating the previous 757/767 payload/range overlap….).”
None other than former ILFC head Steven Udvar-Hazy has stated that the next generation of narrowbodies may not be a single-aisle design.
“The 2-2-2 six abreast twin aisle has a very pronounced marketing advantage compared with a 2-3 or 3-3 layout – no middle seats. Additionally, passenger loading and deplaning should be much quicker with a twin-aisle which helps significantly in aircraft utilization in the short-haul market with several flights daily,” notes a major US airline pilot, who is following the twin-aisle narrowbody conversation with gusto.
But long before Mulally and Udvar-Hazy’s comments – a full 23 years before – Boeing was flogging an idea for a totally new design for a short-/medium-range airliner, called the 7J7.
In the 18 June 1987 issue of Flight, our own David Learmount wrote:
“Boeing’s new design depends completely upon the primary benefit which propfan engines bring; the huge leap in fuel efficiency. Put simply, the 7J7 is planned as a short, fat, and therefore aerodynamically inefficient hull which provides a dream of efficiency and desirability inside. The spotlight is directed on the twin-aisle cabin, because the combination of low fuel prices and propfan properties has ensured that noone is worried about the hull’s turbulent wake.
“…The fact that the 7J7 still is not actually launched, and that Boeing continues to sound its potential customers’ reactions to the new idea which has been formulated from what they say they would like, illustrates the commercial care which the manufacturer is taking.”
So what was happening on the other side of the pond at this time? Well, Airbus had just flown its A320 for the first time a few months earlier in February 1987 and the jetliner was selling like ice-cream at a town fair. But not all carriers were excited by what was then on formal offer from Airbus or Boeing (the 7J7 had not been launched).
Jan Carlzon, then chief of SAS (which was shopping around for its DC-9 replacement) wasn’t exactly jazzed about the cabin layouts of either aircraft. In his book ‘Moments of Truth’, published two years earlier in 1985, the charismatic Carlzon wrote:
“How would I explain to our passengers that SAS shall invest hundreds of millions in the purchase of new 737 or A320 aircraft, if the only new feature is a line down the full length of the cabin only with middle seats in a triple, where nobody wants to sit?”
Carlzon had his own idea of what his passengers wanted, suggesting that the DC-9 fuselage be turned around 90°, from vertical to horizontal, so that the cabin is wider and can go 2+2+2 for a Passenger Pleasing Plane (PPP) or P3 (P-cube). Was the 7J7 a result of Carlzon’s musing?
Rather than settle for something else, Carlzon “decided to vamp up SAS’s old DC-9s with a full-scale refurbish, and added on a significant number of factory new MD-80 Series, on the appreciation that – in the absence of an all-new PPP aircraft (2+2+2) – the (2+3) could be used as is, if holding back selling the middle seat in the triple except on high time flights if need be, leaving it up to the customer to decide whether he’d prefer to accept a middle seat in a triple and depart now, or wait for a less congested flight next morning”, notes former Airbus salesman Morten Müller, who says he had been tasked by his Airbus bosses to sell A320s to Carlzon at the time.
Inspired by Carlzon’s book – which he translated to French in 1986 – and ultimately with an eye on securing a big A320 sale, Müller says he researched the A320 cross-section, and came up with what he claims is his own idea, the so-called A320H PPP in (1+2+2) configuration, and showed it via a hand-sketched drawing to Airbus’s then VP of sales. I wrote about his concept in December 2009.
“My idea was: we can’t make it 2+2+2 as Jan wanted because you’d need some 0.7″x2 + 42.5″x3 + 19″x2 = 166.9″ trim-to-trim but using what we had available, i.e. A320 Series, we only had 146.4″ trim-to-trim, so by removing one seat from the 3+3 count of six abreast single aisle, and re-arranging to 1+2+2, we basically could offer all the passenger pleasing cabin criteria, but with five seats,” says Müller.
Müller claims that any disturbances to Airbus’ efforts to step up production of the A320 (such as redesigning the A320 cabin to make it meet Carlzon’s demands) were perceived negatively by Airbus strategists, and the idea was killed.
He also claims that the Airbus patent office went through the trouble to try arrange securing a patent (with Morten Müller as “Inventor”) with this idea, “but dropped it when they found out that Lockheed had installed twin aisle five abreast seating in the SuperConstellation cabin)”.
(On an aside, I wonder what this says about aircraft cabin layout/configuration patents holding water, since airframers are always looking at what they can do inside the tube.)
In any case, Müller says he left Airbus in April 1991. And this, dear reader, is the point where the cake makes its entrance.
Carlzon needed 80 aircraft for DC-9/MD-80 replacement, and SAS partner Continental Airlines (under Ch 11) needed 100 aircraft for its combined 737-727 fleet replacement. Müller claims he envisioned an arrangement whereby a Scandinavian Consortium would buy 180 green Airbus aircraft, and fit them with PPP cabin features (and indeed it seems a so-called A321 PPP proposal of this kind was made…the details being rather unimportant at this time).
To get Carlzon’s attention, Müller says he orchestrated a party to celebrate both Carlzon’s 10 years as CEO of SAS and his 50th birthday. Furthermore, he says he commissioned the creation of a A321H PPP marzipan and sugar cake from Maître Pâtissier-Confiseur René Pillon with a cake cover (marked PPP) of almond nougat.
The photo at the top of this blog, to the right, and the ones directly below show the cake (and yes, that gray-haired man is Carlzon). All
photos are courtesy of Müller.
To underscore the value proposition (of which you can learn more here Farnborough Issue A321HQR vs A321 (3+3) bis.doc) the cake had cargo – a chocolateparfait hidden in a little drawer.
Ultimately, Müller’s own vision was never realized. But it hasn’t stopped the man from trying. Müller is a persistent son of a gun (and frankly, he can be exacerbating at times…nothing he doesn’t already know). He has probably contacted more than one RWG reader with emails about his ideas for twin-aisle cabin layouts for both the A320 and 737. But I, for one, am sufficiently fascinated to write this blog.
I reached out directly to the now 70-year old Jan Carlzon last week, and he said only, “[I] have no idea about what you call Morten´s design. I know he was one of very few in the aircraft industry who was enthusiastic about my PPP-proposal.”
But back to the subject at hand. Is a twin-aisle narrowbody viable or is it a half-baked idea? The concept of a clean-sheet, twin-aisle narrowbody is “possibly an oxymoron given historic definitions”, notes our avid industry observer. And, in fact, if we’re talking successors to the A320 and 737s, a twin-aisle fat-body (or ‘fattie’ if you will, ahem) might be more appropriate a definition.
I wonder, though, if in addition to offering the A320 NEO, Airbus should offer the TAO (twin-aisle option) to operators of current A320 family aircraft – carriers that truly want to differentiate themselves from the squash-as-many-seats-in-the-bus crowd.
At the end of the day, speaking generally, “everything is doable”, says Avitas senior vice president Adam Pilarski. “The question is economic. So, is there a penalty for two aisles? Yes. It works when you kind of bifurcate the traffic. Business people fly in 38in pitch and get meals and pay $2,000 and then others pay $250 for 30in pitch. But you can do anything.
“I am positive both Airbus and Boeing are doing research. They always do. It doesn’t mean much. That’s why they have wonderful engineers who sit there, pick their navels and come up with weird stuff.”
But technically, he adds, it’s “a piece of cake”.