The Newest Narrowbody Generation Makes Its North American Debut

The delivery of the first of more than 30 Airbus A320neos to Mexican low-cost airline Volaris during the weekend of September 9 to September 11 means that the era of the latest-generation single-aisle aircraft has at last begun for North America.

With Volaris likely to introduce its first A320neo – a Pratt & Whitney PW1100G-JM-powered aircraft on lease from AerCap, the world’s largest aircraft lessor – into commercial service within the next couple of weeks, the delivery presages a flood of latest-generation narrowbody jets to the North American market over the coming decade.

Not counting aircraft which North American carriers will potentially acquire on operating lease from major lessors, which have many hundreds (if not thousands) of A320neo-family jets on order, Volaris is the first of nine North American airlines which to date have ordered A320neo-family aircraft to take delivery of one.

Soon most of those other carriers will join Volaris in taking delivery of the first of nearly 470 A320neo-family aircraft which together they have ordered to date. Again, this figure takes no account of potentially hundreds more A320neos and A321neos that large leasing companies have ordered and for which they might eventually find customers among North American carriers.

The only doubt remaining is whether, when taken over by all-Boeing 737 operator Alaska Airlines, Virgin America – which ironically was the launch customer for the A320neo family in 2011 – will join American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Air, Interjet, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, VivaAerobus and Volaris in ever taking delivery of the 30 A320neos it ordered.

As the first latest-generation narrowbody out of the gate in terms of deliveries, the A320neo will soon be joined by four other new single-aisle jet families in North American service. Leading the charge will be the Boeing 737 MAX, ordered to date by eight North American carriers and due first to enter service in 2017 with launch customer Southwest Airlines.

Southwest is also the largest customer for 737 MAX aircraft, having placed firm orders for 200 to date. The size of Southwest’s orders, when bolstered by 100-aircraft 737 MAX purchases by both American Airlines and United Airlines and buys of 60-plus aircraft by Aeromexico, Air Canada and WestJet, have made the 737 MAX family even more popular to date in North America in sales terms than the A320neo family.

Firm orders for 737 MAXs from North American customers Aeromexico, Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Canada Jetlines, Southwest Airlines, United and WestJet so far total 628 aircraft.

As with the A320neo family, this number takes no account of potential future operating leases of 737 MAX jets to North American carriers by major leasing companies, which have placed orders for hundreds of examples of the latest generation of Boeing’s most popular single-aisle family.

Also soon to make its debut in the North American market is the Bombardier C Series, which, unlike all but one of the other latest-generation narrowbody aircraft (the Mitsubishi Regional Jet) about to enter the market, is a brand-new design rather than a rework and re-engining of an existing single-aisle family.

There is more doubt that one of the larger C Series orders by a North American customer – Republic Airways Holdings’ purchase contract for 40 – will ever result in deliveries than will orders by A320neo customers (except perhaps Virgin America) and 737 MAX customers.

But there is no doubt at all that the two largest North American carriers which have ordered C Series jets to date will take their aircraft.

Air Canada and Delta Air Lines, which respectively have placed firm orders for 45 and 75 C Series aircraft so far but between the two also have secured options and purchase rights for 80more, are blue-chip names in the air transport business. At this point of greatest-ever profitability in the history of the North American airline industry, they represent blue-chip credit risks too.

Also joining the North American airline-industry fray within the next couple of years will be the Embraer E-Jet E2 family, versions of the Brazilian manufacturer’s highly successful E-Jet models re-engined with Pratt & Whitney PW1000G geared turbofans and given aerodynamic and interior improvements.

Sales of the E-Jet E2 family in the North American market to date have been relatively anaemic, SkyWest Airlines’ 100-aircraft purchase of Embraer 175-E2s being the only order for Embraer’s second-generation E-Jet family from a North American airline so far. (However, Los Angeles-lessor ILFC, a subsidiary of AerCap, has ordered 25 Embraer 190-E2s and 25 195-E2s.)

The reason for this seeming lack of North American interest in the E-Jet E2 family is that, crucially, the maximum gross take-off weight (MGTOW) of the Embraer 175-E2 is slightly higher than the highest MGTOW allowed under any of the existing scope clauses in the labour agreements agreed by the major US network airlines’ pilot unions with their employers.

Like the existing Embraer 175 – by far the most popular E-Jet model in North American airline service, North American carriers having ordered hundreds of them – the 175-E2 is designed to carry 76 passengers.

This is the highest number of passengers that the big North American airlines’ pilot-union scope clauses allow the aircraft of these carriers’ regional-airline partners to carry, when operating on behalf of the major carriers.

However, where the MGTOW of the existing, first-generation Embraer 175 falls just under the maximum-MGTOW requirement in North America pilot-union scope clauses, the MGTOW of the more capable, longer-range Embraer 175-E2 does not.

So changes to the scope clauses of the major carriers’ pilot labour agreements will be necessary before Embraer 175-E2 sales are likely to pick up in North America.

This may also be true for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), Japanese industry’s effort to develop a competitive, modern single-aisle jet to be significantly competitive worldwide in sales terms.

Rather delayed (like the C Series but not the E-Jet E2, which if anything is ahead of schedule), the development and flight-testing programme for the MRJ shows evidence of Japan’s relative inexperience in designing and producing modern commercial aircraft as the prime programme integrator.

None the less a modern design, and powered by PW1000G geared turbofans, MRJs have been ordered by three US airline companies to date. SkyWest, Inc., the parent of huge regional carriers SkyWest Airlines and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, has ordered 100.

Another big US regional-airline holding company, Trans States Holdings, has placed a firm order for 50, while Miami-based charter (and soon to be scheduled) carrier Eastern Air Lines has secured purchase rights on 20.

However, only independent Eastern Air Lines’ deal (if firmed into an order) can be considered non-problematic – assuming, of course, that the relatively young carrier survives long enough to take delivery of its planned MRJ fleet. But Eastern’s newly awarded rights to operate scheduled services from Miami to Cuba should help it to do so.

The potential problem for Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation in being able to deliver to SkyWest and Trans States Holdings the MRJ90 version of the MRJ that they have specified is that this version is designed to hold at least 82 passengers in two-class configuration.

This is six passengers more than the 76 the major North American carriers’ pilot labour agreement scope clauses allow the aircraft of their employers’ regional partners to carry.

But since almost the entire business of SkyWest, Inc.’s two huge subsidiary regional airlines and also the three regional airlines – Compass Airlines, GoJet Airlines and Trans States Airlines – owned by Trans States Holdings is to operate franchised flights on behalf of major US carriers, they are very much subject to their big partners’ scope clauses.

However, should these scope clauses change to allow regional carriers’ aircraft to carry more than 76 passengers or to operate at higher maximum take-off weights than they do now, then the Embraer E-Jet E2 and the MRJ families could benefit significantly from renewed interest on the part of North American regional airlines.

TAGS: Airframes
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