SAS's negotiations with Airbus about an order for further A320neos to replace Boeing 737s – disclosed by the Scandinavian group last month – is the latest step in its efforts to standardise its fleet.
In 2012, the airline's short-haul fleet included A320ceo-family types, 737 Classics and 737NGs, MD-80/90s and 717s, BAE Systems Avro RJ85s, Bombardier CRJs and Q400 turboprops. Barring the A320-family aircraft and 737NGs, all have since been phased out.
SAS is wet-leasing CRJs and ATR turboprops for regional services, and reduction of its own fleet has "enabled us to simplify our own operation", it notes. The rationalisation was a "main contributor" to group-wide total efficiencies worth "a little bit more than SKr5 billion" ($600 million) between 2013 and last year, SAS tells FlightGlobal.
Today, SAS has only A320ceo-family jets stationed in Danish capital Copenhagen and only 737s at its Norwegian base in Oslo. At the Stockholm base, 737s are being gradually replaced with SAS's A320neos, deliveries of which began in 2016.
Flight Fleets Analyzer shows that the group has received 17 CFM International Leap-1A-powered A320neos and has another 13 on order for delivery through 2019. Its Boeing narrowbody fleet comprises 70 aircraft – including three stored units – spanning mainly 737-700s and -800s, but also including 13 -600s.
"We have a need, basically beyond 2019, to replace about 50 aircraft in our fleet," says SAS, adding that a decision has been made "to proceed with Airbus in relation to final negotiations".
SAS's long-haul fleet is comprised of A330s and A340s, and the airline has ordered A350s to replace the A340s. Operating an all-Airbus short-haul fleet will generate savings through standardised crew training, spare-parts supply and easier provision of standby capacity, says the carrier.
Despite the decision to replace the 737s, SAS is still in the process of refurbishing the cabins of these aircraft as an interior upgrade for its short-haul fleet. This includes installation of more lightweight seats and wi-fi systems that is to become available later this year.
STARTING WITH SEATS
Seats were also the subject of an efficiency initiative by Lufthansa Group back in 2011, when it introduced a standard short-haul seat for Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa and Swiss. Low-cost unit Eurowings has since adopted the seat too.
Now, the fleet harmonisation effort has been take a step further – Lufthansa has developed a standard specification for A320neo-family aircraft that will be delivered across the group from 2019. This is a result of a management reorganisation in 2016 to establish certain functions – including aircraft specification and procurement – at group level rather than at the individual airlines.
While the group had already concentrated its narrowbody operations around the A320 family, Lufthansa Group's head of fleet procurement and aircraft specification, Alexander Feuersanger, says there were "many brand- and airline-specific differences" between the individual airline subsidiaries. This included galley configurations, emergency equipment and cabin furnishings.
The new specification includes standard sidewall panels and galley floors, both of which previously varied across the airlines. Differences existed also in the galley configuration on the in-service fleet – Swiss's galleys are equipped with chillers, while Lufthansa and Eurowings don't employ active cooling systems. In the freight hold, Lufthansa aircraft are fitted with electric cargo loading systems, while that feature is not available on Eurowings' fleet.
These differences were analysed, says Feuersanger. "What are the cost drivers [and] what can we give up? What can we jointly improve to agree on a common standard in order to make aircraft allocation more flexible across the group?"
It was not only individual airline specifications that led to differences in cabin and aircraft configurations across the group – but also modifications over the course of the aircraft's service life.
SHORTER TRANSFER TIMES
When an aircraft is transferred between group carriers, a lead time of three to five months is typically required for the engineering department to determine what changes need to be made for the new operator. The actual modification work on an A320 can take up to a month, while the total project costs can reach up to $1 million per aircraft, says Feuersanger.
As a result of the group-wide aircraft specification, he foresees reducing maintenance downtime to a week. "On the cost side there will be dramatic reductions too; we will probably reach a cost reduction around 75%," he says.
IAG also cites a reduction in aircraft modifications as key advantage for standardisation efforts across the group's A320-family fleet. "Since 2014, we have been taking steps to harmonise our airlines' short-haul fleet to increase flexibility and lower costs," says the parent of British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling.
The group says it has standardised avionics systems, cabin configuration and emergency equipment. "This gives us cost efficiencies and the ability to shift aircraft between the airlines to quickly adjust capacity to changing demand in different markets at lower costs," it says.
Despite increased commonality, Lufthansa Group's airline subsidiaries will still be able to differentiate themselves, stresses its head of cabin interior Steffen Voltz. "With regard to cabin hardware, there won't be major changes compared with today, which passengers will notice," he says. The standardisation effort was focused on components that were not "brand-relevant". Voltz says the airlines will continue to have individual carpets, seat covers, curtains, colour schemes, and branding on passenger-facing bulkheads and class dividers.
He acknowledges that finding a standard galley floor that supports all group carriers' branding – an effort he describes as "not quite so easy" – might appear trivial. But he says that galley modification requires extensive maintenance during aircraft transfers. Now, galleys have been standardised across the group and will be fitted, as part of the new specification, with connectors that allow installation of, for example, chillers, without major changes.
Feuersanger believes that "brand goes far beyond what is physically installed on aircraft". He says: "Brand is not only defined by hardware, but also, naturally, by our flight attendants [and] all the employees, who fulfil their duty on board and on the ground... That's why we think carefully about where changes to increase standardisation make sense, which might not be noticed by customers, and where to pay attention to details that are important to customers."
In addition to simplifying aircraft transfers between group carriers, the common specification also enables Lufthansa to decide which airline gets the aircraft at a later stage in the production process. Lufthansa says the new specification will apply to around 100 A320neo-family jets that will be delivered from next year through 2025.
The Star Alliance airline group has made an effort to increase flexibility for its future long-haul fleet too. Feuersanger confirms that potential group-wide deployment is in mind for the A350s and 777X twinjets ordered in parallel in 2013.
He says a common specification was developed for the A350 as an aircraft platform, while the cabin was specially devised for Lufthansa. For the 777X, however, there is a common specification that covers both the aircraft and cabin.
Austrian and Swiss already operate 777s, while Lufthansa employs the type only for its cargo division. Lufthansa has ordered 20 777-9s for delivery from 2020.