The new non-equity joint venture between low-cost carriers AirAsia and Jetstar will further push aircraft manufacturers to design aircraft around the needs of low-cost carriers, instead of just full-service carriers.
Amongst other initiatives in the JV’s first phase of driving costs down in order to offer lower fares, AirAsia and Jetstar want to be actively involved in the design of Airbus and Boeing’s next-generation narrow-body aircraft. They want to see an aircraft tailored to their low-cost needs. Under the joint venture, made public last month and further detailed in Sydney today, the carriers plan to jointly order narrow-body aircraft.
Jetstar CEO Bruce Buchanan noted the carriers would hold large purchasing power. AirAsia operates 48 A320s and has 105 on order, according to ACAS. Jetstar says it (including affiliates in Singapore and Vietnam) operates 43 A320s with 57 on order. Their joint A320 replacement order could be one of the largest aircraft orders in history.
“Our aircraft have been designed for full-service carriers,” AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes said of an underlying problem to the Airbus A320, the workhorse of the AirAsia and Jetstar fleets.
Low-cost carriers typically have a higher aircraft utilisation rate to bring costs down, but the increase in utilisation stresses certain aircraft parts, Fernandes said. He noted the hydraulic system on the A320 is “not as robust” as he would like it. This leads to extra maintenance, adding cost.
Photo: Law Kian Yan
Photo: Law Kian Yan
Buchanan noted low-cost carriers in Asia and Australia more frequently fly over water and typically have longer flights than low-cost counterparts in North America and Europe. He did not explain how these nuances could influence aircraft design. Buchanan also mentioned, without further elaboration, that he wanted to see a future narrow-body aircraft that was more “suitable to airports in Asia”.
Jetstar representative Simon Westaway could not offer possible design ideas in response to Buchanan’s comments. But Westaway said ensuring passenger loading through front and rear exits–and possibly middle exits, if possible on future aircraft–would be part of “a gamut of opportunities”.
AirAsia and Jetstar’s aim to see an aircraft better withstand high utilisation rates is not unprecedented. In the 1990s Boeing built a special version of its long-haul B747-400 for the Japanese full-service market, which needed to transport a large number of passengers over a short distance. The B747-400 “domestic” aircraft lacks winglets and features a strengthened undercarriage, wing, and fuselage. Similarly, Boeing is offering a short-range version of its B787, the -3 (although the outlook of it is perhaps not guaranteed).
Above: A B747-400 Domestic. By AirSpace user Global Ranger
What is unprecedented is that AirAsia and Jetstar want a narrow-body designed from the get-go to match their low-cost needs. Hundreds if not thousands of these aircraft could be manufactured, whereas only 18 B747-400 Domestics were ever made, according to ACAS.
AirAsia and Jetstar’s announcement not only signifies they will be the formidable players going forward in the Asian market (if there was ever doubt), it also puts Airbus and Boeing on notice that it’s no longer business as usual: legacy carriers need to make room, or even move over, at the design table.
Airlines and manufacturers have historically worked together on aircraft design. Pan Am pushed Boeing to widen the B707′s cabin in order to accommodate an extra seat in each row. Such partnerships were brought to a new level in the 1990s with Boeing’s “working together” team that saw eight airlines (including Qantas) play a significant role in designing the B777. Boeing also created an extended range version of its B747-400, with Qantas the only passenger airline to take up the type. All of those partnerships, however, exclusively involved full-service airlines.
As low-cost carriers have become more dominant, the industry has seen them play a larger role in interior design. Galleys have been substituted for lavatories in order to accommodate more seats. Lighter seats and galley units have also been introduced.
Airbus and Boeing have also taken note. In early days of marketing the B787′s economy class, Boeing pitched a 2-4-2 configuration for full-service carriers and a 3-3-3 configuration for low-cost cost carriers. (The 3-3-3 configuration, however, has gained traction with full-service carriers.) Similarly Airbus designed its A350 XWB in a 2-4-2 economy configuration, but also offers a 3-4-3 configuration, which AirAsia X plans to operate.
Interior modifications help bring costs down, but only go so far. Now the question is: How? How to design an aircraft better suited to low-cost carriers? Will there be a variant for LCCs, a la the B747-400D, or will the LCC requests be standard on every aircraft? For Airbus and Boeing, the race is on.
There’s more to come on the AirAsia and Jetstar JV, so check back here soon.