The global airliner fleet will be much bigger in the 2030s – there is little argument about that. But what will we be flying and where will the aircraft be based?
Industry forecasts may differ as to its precise shape and size, but on one thing all but the most pessimistic crystal-ball gazers are agreed: the global airliner fleet in the mid-2030s will be around double the size it is today.
A generation experiencing flight for the first time in the developing world will be behind much of the rise in traffic, with new airports bringing rapid air connections to remote communities previously served only by roads and ferries, and urban growth turning modest city gateways into super hubs.
The 2015 Flightglobal Fleet Forecast estimates that just under 41,000 new commercial jet and turboprop aircraft will be delivered into passenger and airline service between now and 2034. A further 1,950 passenger aircraft will be converted to freighters, it predicts.
The 41,000 figure far outstrips the number of aircraft forecast to be retired, with the in-service fleet increasing 82% to 48,760, of which 40,940 will be passenger jets. Passenger traffic growth rates of 5% and 8% in Asia-Pacific and China mean 40% of the fleet will be operating in these two regions.
Airbus – which limits its 20-year forecast to aircraft larger than 100 seats – estimates deliveries of just under 32,600 aircraft over the same period, of which 22,900 will be single-aisles, 8,100 widebodies and 1,600 very large aircraft, a segment currently occupied by the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8.
The airframer’s rationale behind its optimism is straightforward. It believes the annual increase in global passenger traffic will continue to outperform GDP growth, something it has done for the past decade (save for a dip in 2008/09 when the two aligned).
It also believes a growing middle class in emerging countries will drive the increase in demand for flights, and consequently new airliners. Numbers of households outside Europe and North America with a yearly income between $20,000 and $150,000 at today’s prices will almost double from two billion to just under four billion.
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Although there will be multiple new routes opened over the next 20 years, 70% of the traffic growth will be accounted for by the existing network, Airbus believes, with a huge increase in what it calls “aviation mega cities”, defined as conurbations with at least 10,000 long-haul passengers per day.
The manufacturer says there are 47 of these in the world today, but this number will expand to 91 by 2034. At the moment, 900,000 passengers – or around 90% of total long-haul traffic – travel to, from or through one of these cities every day. By 2034, that figure will be 2.3 million, or more than 95% of total long-haul traffic.
This predicted trend is behind Airbus’s confidence about the ultra-large market. It believes superjumbos will be one way of relieving pressure for slots at these congested airports as demand for air travel soars.
As any economist knows, demand is just one side of the equation when it comes to predicting the growth in air travel and sales of airliners. Supply constraints are represented by availability of space for – and lack of political constraints to – airport development.
However, while airport expansion is a particular problem in the developed West – witness the UK’s seemingly endless debate over where to build new runways at London – it is less of a problem in emerging countries where airports and connecting infrastructure can be designed into plans for expanding cities, and where land is cheaper.