Qatar plans to decide on CSeries and A320neo by Paris

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Qatar Airways expects to decide on a potential order for the Bombardier CSeries and Airbus A320neo by the end of this first half of this year although engine maintenance costs remain an area of concern for the carrier's evaluation team.

The Doha-based carrier has been in on/off negotiations with Bombardier for a possible CSeries launch order since 2008. Qatar also has been looking at the A320neo since the programme was launched by Airbus late last year with the airframer immediately declaring Qatar as a potential early customer.

Qatar management advisor Stephen Vella says the carrier plans to make a decision on new-generation narrowbody aircraft "within the next six months, probably before the Paris air show". Vella says its current evaluation only includes the A320neo and CSeries, explaining that "the 737NG make no sense for Qatar Airways as it does not deliver anything different than what we currently have on our new A320s".

"Our evaluation is focused on the A320neo and the CSeries," Vella tells ATI. "It is not inconceivable that we might order both as they are distinct aircraft families optimised for different missions."

In its long running evaluation of the Pratt & Whitney PW1524G-powered CSeries, Qatar has repeatedly cited engine maintenance cost guarantees as the key stumbling block. Vella says engine maintenance costs are also a major factor in its evaluation of the A320neo. The A320neo is powered by the PW1100, which features the same geared turbofan (GTF) technology as the PW1524, or the CFM International Leap-X.

The manufacturers have repeatedly claimed their new-generation engines have lower maintenance costs than the narrowbody engines but several major carriers including Qatar remain sceptical.

"We are very concerned about the life cycle and maintenance costs of new generation engines. Engine manufacturers are trying to extract more and more from existing technology and some, in our opinion, have unrealistic expectations," Vella says. "This will affect reliability and on-wing time adversely and therefore cost per engine flight hour. Maintenance cost and other extensive guarantees form an integral part of our engine selection process."

Vella says other factors in its new narrowbody aircraft evaluation include aircraft size, payload and range; takeoff and en route performance; cabin layout dimensions and features; cargo capability; facilities impact; noise and emissions; aircraft systems philosophy and maturity; maintainability; commonality with existing fleet; product support quality, guarantees and warranties; and investment in spare parts, tooling and ground equipment.

"Each of these factors has a different degree of influence on the overall evaluation. New aircraft operating economics are benchmarked against the existing fleet in a proprietary evaluation model that brings together on the one hand forecast demand and yield to derive revenue and on the other hand the variable and fixed costs associated with each of the aircraft types under evaluation to determine relative operating profit," Vella explains.

"Aircraft availability and net pricing do have a significant influence on the results as do relative fuel burn and maintenance costs. The beauty of an evaluation model is that it facilitates extensive sensitivity analysis of all evaluation variables so that we can understand how they influence the economic result. This is very useful during manufacturer negotiations."

According to Flightglobal's ACAS database, Qatar's current narrowbody fleet consists of 31 A320 family aircraft. ACAS lists Qatar as currently having 16 additional A320s on order, with nine delivery slots this year, five in 2012 and two in 2014.

The CSeries is slated to enter service in 2013 and the A320neo is expected to enter service in 2016. Qatar currently holds six A320 options which could potentially be exercised to fill in the gap before it begins to take delivery of new-generation narrowbodies.