Big bets are being placed on the 100-seat aircraft segment. Numerous aircraft manufacturers are wagering their scarce development funds on the future of the market that launched the iconic Boeing 737 and Douglas DC-9 lines but also sports numerous failed attempts.
Bombardier and existing market leader Embraer have arguably the most watched programmes. The former hopes to have its 110- to 160-seat CSeries in the air by late June while the latter aims for its second generation E-Jet to enter service by 2018.
"The 100- to 149-seat aircraft segment will enjoy the strongest growth in terms of deliveries," says Bombardier in its market forecast through 2031. "Thanks to 'step change' engine technology, the arrival of new aircraft specifically designed for this segment will invigorate market demand to further optimise airline route networks and profitability."
Not everyone shares the same rosy outlook. Airbus and Boeing have bowed out of the market for the most part, eliminating the smallest current generation narrowbodies - the 107-seat A318 and the 110-seat 737-600 - from their neo and max family line ups. The 124-seat A319neo and 126-seat 737 Max 7 will be their smallest next generation aircraft.
"Most but not all [100-seat] aircraft have failed," says Barry Eccleston, president and chief executive of Airbus Americas. He cites his own experience at Fairchild Dornier with the 728Jet as well as the Fokker 100 and British Aerospace BAe-146 programmes.
"If there is a 100-seat marketplace, its already occupied by a manufacturer," he adds, referring to Embraer's 190/195 aircraft.
The E-190/195 makes up nearly half of the global in service passenger fleet of 1,227 90- to 110-seat western built aircraft (including the Sukhoi Superjet 100), according to Flightglobal's Ascend Online database. It is followed by the F-100 with 12.8% of the in service aircraft, the Boeing 737-500 with 9.7% and the Boeing 717-200 with 7%.
*Includes Sukhoi Superjet 100, excludes combi aircraft
ROOM FOR TWO?
"We do see room for multiple programmes," says Philippe Poutissou, vice-president of marketing for commercial aircraft at Bombardier. "The aircraft that do well are the ones that are on their design point." He adds that the Canadian airframer's CSeries is ideal as a hub feeder aircraft for mainline carriers.
The CSeries is marketed as offering a 20% fuel burn improvement and a 15% cash operating cost advantage over existing in-production aircraft. It has a range of 5,463km (2,950nm), according to Bombardier.
The aircraft has garnered 145 firm orders, which are split 63 for the smaller CS100 and 82 for the larger CS300, 156 options and 67 letters of intent, Ascend shows. The first flight is scheduled for June.
Paulo Cesar Silva, president and chief executive of Embraer Commercial Aviation, agrees with Bombardier to a point. He says that they foresee "tremendous opportunities for an efficient 100-seat plus aircraft" but notes that a manufacturer who is new to the segment will face significant challenges building a global support organisation.
"For a new entrant to get to this stage takes years and years, maybe decades," he says, citing the time it took Embraer to build up its own such network.
Embraer's second generation E-Jet will offer "double digit" gains in fuel efficiency, maintenance costs and noise reduction, the company has said. This will be achieved with new wings, a fly-by-wire avionics suite and Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engines.
There are 452 E-190s and 104 E-195s in service around the world, according to Ascend. In addition, the E-190 has 93 outstanding firm orders and 215 options, and the E-195 25 orders and 40 options.
Second generation E-jet
Various analyses agree that the segment is likely to grow. The Japan Aircraft Development Corporation estimated a need for new deliveries of 3,655 100- to 119-seat aircraft by 2031, in a 2011 forecast.
Embraer's own estimate foresees a nearly identical 3,765 new deliveries - roughly three and a half times the existing fleet based on the Ascend data - of 91- to 120-seat aircraft over the same period.
Comac, Mitsubishi, NG Aircraft and Sukhoi are also making plays on the segment. Comac, Mitsubishi and Sukhoi are either developing or offer aircraft slightly smaller than 100 seats - the 78-seat ARJ21, 90-seat MRJ90 and the up to 95-seat SSJ 100, respectively - but could push into the 100 seat segment. NG is looking to introduce a re-engined F-100 by the end of the decade.
Mitsubishi has said that it plans to introduce a 100-seat MRJ100X in 2017 or 2018, which would coincide with the entry into service of the revamped E-Jets if all goes according to schedule. And Embraer itself is considering a stretched version of the E-195 that would more compete more directly with the CS100 by the end of the decade.
"There is a natural market for some 100-seat aircraft," says Peter Hunt, chief financial officer of Virgin American and former chief financial officer of Pinnacle Airlines. He notes that mainline scope clauses in the USA have created an "artificial" barrier for aircraft sizes.
Scope clauses cap the size of regional aircraft at 76 seats at most mainline carriers. However, contracts at Delta Air Lines and United Airlines included language for the addition of 100-seat aircraft in their respective fleets.
Delta leased 88 110-seat 717-200s from Southwest Airlines for its mainline operation in May 2012, and United has yet to make a decision on whether it will acquire a 100 seater. Air Canada has also said that it anticipates placing an order that would cover its fleet of 75- to 160-seat narrowbodies this year.
Air Canada operates 45 E-190s, according to Ascend, while United removed the last of its last five 108-seat 737-500s this quarter.
Airbus and Boeing's exit from the 100-seat market bothers some carriers. Hawaiian Airlines is one such carrier that would like to see the large OEMs offer an aircraft in the segment that could meet its need for a high-cycle and low maintenance cost aircraft.
"The manufacturers have focused more and more on optimising those aircraft for longer range flying," says Peter Ingram, chief commercial officer of Honolulu-based Hawaiian. "That has meant that we haven't really seen [new aircraft] for the short haul flying that Hawaiian does."
The airline operates 18 717-200s, Ascend shows.
While Ingram admits that the airline's operations are "kind of unusual" - intra-island hops of about 250km or less - he points to Delta's decision to lease used 717s instead of buying a new aircraft from Bombardier (the CRJ1000 could have fit its 100-seat need) or Embraer as indication that there is a potential market for the large OEMs.
"[Delta's decision] might be a message to the manufacturers that with fuel costs where they are [and] the 50-seat jet aircraft in decline, that there is an opportunity for a short-haul small narrowbody," he says.
Hawaiian does not plan to replace its 717s until at least the end of the decade, executives have said. This decision allows it to sit on the sidelines and let the market decide between the CSeries, second generation E-Jet, potential MRJ100X or any other aircraft that successfully enters service.
Airlines' current preference for larger narrowbody aircraft could quickly change. Turboprops appeared to have a firm hold on the regional market until Comair and Continental Airlines began ordering large quantities of 50-seat jets in the mid-1990s. Those jets subsequently maintained a firm hold on the market until their economics became unpalatable as fuel prices rose during the 2000s and now the lower per seat costs of 76-seat jets and larger gauge mainline narrowbodies are the plat du jour.
"Things go around in circles," says Airbus' Eccleston. "Markets that become underserved today create opportunities tomorrow."
Note: An earlier version of this article attributed Peter Ingram's comments to Scott Topping, chief financial officer of Hawaiian