The latest World Airliner Census shows that the growth of the airliner fleet had already begun to slow prior to September's terrorist attacks

The Western-built airliner fleet has averaged annual growth of 4-5% in recent years. But this growth looks set to slow dramatically following the terrorist attacks in the USA. The question is: how long and how hard will last month's tragic events affect the airline industry?

According to this year's Flight International World Airliner Census, compiled from the Airclaims CASE database, the Western-built jet and turboprop fleet in service with the world's airlines totals around 20,500 aircraft - an increase of 860 aircraft, or 4%, since the last census a little over a year ago.

Fleet growth is down compared to last year, as record levels of aircraft output across both large aircraft and regional jet production lines have been partially offset by permanent withdrawals from service (ie retirements). In the last 18 months, over 2,100 new Western-built jets and turboprops have been delivered to airlines, with around 500 aircraft (330 jets and 180 turboprops) having been retired.

This balance has, however, been dramatically upset by the events of 11 September, the consequences of which are expected to include an output cut of at least 20% and an acceleration of retirement programmes. It is unlikely that many older generation types such as the Boeing 727 and McDonnell Douglas DC-9 will remain in passenger service in North America much beyond next summer.

As illustrated by pie chart 1, half the world's aircraft reside with the airlines of North and South America, while a quarter is in service with European carriers. Asian, Australasian and Middle Eastern airlines account for a little under a fifth of the fleet, and Africa around 4%.

Pie chart 2 provides a breakdown of the order backlog by region. North and South American carriers account for well over half the 3,560 aircraft on order, which is why the manufacturers' sales forces are nervously waiting to see exactly what the long term effects of the terror strikes will be.

Europe is the second-largest market, accounting for 22% of orders. But with this region also feeling the effects of last month's attacks, manufacturers will find no hiding place there to shift unwanted aircraft originally destined for North American carriers.

Analysts are drawing parallels between the aerospace downturn suffered during the Gulf War and the current slump - but the relevance of that scenario to this crisis is unclear. On that occasion, passenger traffic entered an unprecedented decline in 1991, devastating airlines and manufacturers. Order intake fell dramatically and in some cases was negative when adjusted for cancellations. Output was similarly affected, falling by over 30%. The recovery to pre-Gulf War production levels took five years.

Bar chart 1 provides the breakdown of Airbus' and Boeing's combined 2,160-strong airline order backlog by region. North and South American airlines represent the largest single slice of both companies' backlogs. Airbus has a bigger share of the European market, while Boeing is ahead in Asia, Australasia and the Middle East.

In Bar chart 2, a similar breakdown is provided for regional jets, orders for which (1,292) represent over a third of the backlog. Bombardier and Embraer are the two big forces, though both have massive exposure in the North/South American sector, accounting for 86% and 73% of their backlogs respectively.

Until recently, the Asian sector had not been a traditional market for regional aircraft, but orders from Chinese operators have begun to pick up over the last year, and the growth potential of such an untapped market is huge.

Boeing types continue to dominate the installed fleet ranking (Table 1), with the737-300/400/500 Classic topping the list again on 1,952 units. The Airbus A320 family continues to make strong progress, however, and is now clearly established in second place with 1,541 aircraft. The Next Generation 737 has moved up three places in the rankings to seventh, and when combined with the Classic and -100/200 fleets, the 737 family has an impressive total of 3,622 aircraft.

Several older types, such as the Boeing 727, 737-200 and McDonnell Douglas DC-9, are starting to fall down the rankings as their fleets shrink due to retirements. The Boeing 747 retains fifth spot, although its tally has dropped by one unit .

While the top of the regional ranking (table 2) remains unchanged, with new generation turboprops produced by ATR and Bombardier (the Dash 8) in the lead, regional jets are making a real impact as output rises to record levels. The Bombardier CRJ has stormed to third place from sixth a year ago, while the Embraer ERJ family has come straight into the rankings in fifth position.

Providing an accurate picture of the state of the fleets of the airlines of Russia and the former Soviet bloc is difficult. According to Russian aviation expert Paul Duffy, the fleet of Russian-designed airliners totals around 3,100, with a further 65 aircraft on order. Duffy believes that as little as 40% of the fleet may be in active use at any time.

Table 4 provides a ranking for the Russian/CIS-built airliner fleets. The Tupolev Tu-154 heads the list, with the 30-seat Yakovlev Yak-40 in second place and the ubiquitous Antonov An-24 turboprop freighter in third. Most types in the ranking are older generation aircraft, emphasising the urgency for replacements to be acquired by the region's carriers.

Source: Flight International