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​Vietnam Airlines weighs narrowbody, regional jet options

Vietnam Airlines is exploring an order for 50 narrowbodies and up to 15 regional jets as it puts plans for a long-range widebody on the backburner.

The airline is looking at both Boeing and Airbus types to fill the narrowbody requirement, says the airline's chief executive, Duong Tri Thanh, in an interview with FlightGlobal.

“By definition it's a narrowbody [and] whether it’s a Boeing or an Airbus, it is open for consideration,” he says. “When the fleet is below 50-70 there is a need to have a common type.”

He adds that the newly-launched A321XLR is a “very interesting type of aeroplane and we would seriously consider it,” as it would be effective on long, thin routes that “cannot support larger aircraft.”

Cirium's Fleets Analyzer shows that Vietnam Airlines operates 53 A321ceos powered by International Aero Engines V2500s. It also has 12 A321neos powered by Pratt & Whitney PW1100Gs, with seven additional examples on order.

REPLACEMENT STRATEGY

The average age of the A321ceo fleet is 8.3 years, with the oldest aircraft at 15.2 years of age. The acquisition is aimed largely at replacing the legacy A321 fleet.

The new narrowbody will allow the airline to capitalise on key Northeast Asian markets such as South Korea and Japan.

It is looking at a mix of sizes. Duong notes that this week Airbus will bring its A220 to Hanoi, where Vietnam Airlines has its headquarters, as part of a regional sales tour.

“[The A220] is providing the capacity in the range of 130-140 passengers, so it could be a bridge between most of the aeroplanes within our fleet with 180 seats, to 70 seats with the ATR,” he says. “But actually we have been considering a regional jet, a 100 seater. But the change in ownership at Bombardier will make this decision take longer for us.”

Bombardier is in the process of divesting its CRJ regional jet programme to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and has stopped offering the CRJ for sale.

Duong notes that the airline’s ATR fleet was formerly 15 aircraft, but has now been reduced to six. Still, the carrier needs an aircraft that can serve secondary cities in Vietnam and neighbouring countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

DIRECT USA? NOT YET

As for long-haul widebodies such as the Airbus A350-1000 and 777-8, Duong suggests the airline has its hands full with the induction of new types. Since 2015, Vietnam Airlines has added 14 A350-900s and 11 787-9s, with eight 787-10s to start arriving from next month.

“All these new aeroplanes coming in give us improvements in cost, fuel consumption, maintenance, and more important comfort for passengers,” he says.

“We are now quite comfortable with our mix of 787s and the A350s. This will be okay for another five or six years. Now we are quite busy working on the programme for the acquisition of 50 narrowbodies.”

Duong also questions the opportunity offered by the Federal Aviation Administration’s awarding Vietnam with Category I status in February. This allows Vietnamese airlines to serve the USA directly, and has been viewed as an impetus for Vietnamese carriers to obtain long-range aircraft for nonstop services. The Vietnam-USA route is seen as one of the world’s largest under-served markets, given the large Vietnamese diaspora in the USA.

“There is demand in terms of numbers, but in terms of commercial value and considerations, the revenue side cannot currently cover very costly operations to the USA.”

He points out that even American carriers prefer to serve the Vietnam market through connections with partner airlines via North Asian hubs. In addition, Korean and Taiwanese carriers are strong at channeling USA-Vietnam traffic through North Asia, and increasingly mainland Chinese carriers, such as China Southern, are being active in the market.

Duong is also cool on the idea of obtaining maindeck freighters. The airline has been exploring its options in the cargo space given the boom in Vietnamese electronics manufacturing.

“The demand for air cargo/freighter operations is clearly there, with many people coming in,” he says.

“We are taking advantage developing our widebody fleet with belly capacity, but [for] freighter operations, clearly we need some cooperation with the very large and experienced cargo operators, [such as] our close friends like Korean Air and China Airlines.”

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