This piece covers Boeing’s slipping grip on the low-cost airline market, with a focus on Asia: how, why, and where.
Air Asia, and EasyJet, operators of Airbus A320 airplanes, were once Boeing 737 operators. Airbus has been on a “rampage", trying to trespass Boeing’s narrowbody territory, and plant what is today the world’s best selling airplane family.
Air Asia, which until as recently as 2010 operated Boeing 737-300 aircraft, is now an all Airbus A320 operator: operating 73 of them. Air Asia Indonesia, which also operated Boeing 737-300s, now flies 30 Airbus A320 airplanes. Lion Air of Indonesia, which operates 99 Boeing 737 aircraft, most of which are 737NG airplanes, placed a firm order for 234 Airbus A320 aircraft, including 60 Airbus A320 classic engine option airplanes. Garuda Citilink, established in 2001 as a low-cost subsidiary of Garuda Indonesia, which operated an all Boeing 737-300 and 400 fleet, now flies 24, more efficient Airbus A320s with the callsign “Supergreen".
Jet Airways has evaluated Airbus A320NEOs, and Neil Mills, the then CEO of SpiceJet, publicly announced the evaluation of a fleet switch to the A320NEO.
Boeing’s comeback: an order of 54 Boeing 737s, comprising 23 737-800s and 31 737 Max 8s from SilkAir, the regional wing of Singapore Airlines, which welcomed its first Boeing 737-800 (9V-MGA) at the Singapore Airshow 2014, marking the start of SilkAir’s transition to an all-Boeing fleet, from the existing fleet of 24 Airbus aircraft, comprising 6 A319s and 18 A320s. (see photo on top)
After SilkAir, Boeing is now trying to sway TigerAir to adopt its airplanes.
How: Airbus’s Successes.
Said Dinesh Keshkar, vice president, Asia-Pacific & India Sales for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, in February 2013, after Spicejet and Jet Airways performed financially better, (after the demise of Kingfisher), “Can they sustain these yields, which I think they can because of the balance of capacity in the market. They will continue to do well and aviation will continue to grow profitably. The Indian commercial aviation market is improving with higher yields and stability in fuel charges".
The same Keshkar in February 2014 admitted that Indian carriers are “not doing well” due to the decline in the rupee, high fuel costs, and high capital costs and taxes in India. “Certainly the Indian market is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard to make money there. Nevertheless, everybody realizes that it’s a great market and that’s why more and more people are trying to get into that market."
Said Kiran Rao, executive vice president for strategy at Airbus, in January 2013, “It’s quite understandable that with the high fuel prices and the Indian taxes, the neo really works in India,” he says. “Jet Airways and Spicejet are predominately Boeing airlines today, but we will give it a good shot.”
Two things make the Airbus A320NEO attractive: Great operating economics, and its availability atleast 2 years before the Boeing 737MAX. That gives operators the chance to start reaping the benefits of an economical airplane two years before its competition, and that amounts to saving big money.
To put things in perspective, final assembly for the first Airbus A320NEO will start in March 2014, for the planned maiden flight in autumn, kicking off a flight-test campaign with 8 Airbus A320NEO airplanes, all flying with PW1100G Geared Turbofan Engines. In contrast, the engine that will power the 737MAX, the GE-SNECMA CFM LEAP-1B variant may not take to the skies this year, as the engine manufacturer plans to begin flight tests of the A320NEO’s alternate engine, LEAP-1A, on GE’s Boeing 747 flying testbed in September 2014.
The A320NEO is expected to enter service in late 2015, while the Boeing 737MAX is expected to enter service in late 2017.
“In a high fuel cost environment, it only makes sense to consider all of the available options. We must look at the aircraft that will have the lowest operating costs and see how it fits into our fleet,” said Neil Mills in March 2013, talking about the possible switch to the Airbus A30NEO, to meet medium term fleet requirements.”We will switch from one aircraft type to another if needed. I was with Easyjet when we switched from Boeing to Airbus and we can do the same here.”
The Boeing 737-800, which compares & competes directly with the Airbus A320, burns more fuel for the same payload. The Boeing 737-800 with winglets burns as much fuel as the A320 for the same range, payload, and cruise altitude. The A320 with “sharklets”, however, beats the Boeing 737-800W, and the A320NEO, goes unmatched.
But getting efficient airplanes two years earlier isn’t everything.
A continuing fight in the World Trade Organization is between the U.S. and the European Union over government support to Boeing and Airbus. The U.S. charges that European government subsidies have allowed Airbus to undercut Boeing prices, giving Airbus an unfair advantage in the marketplace and harming the U.S. aerospace industry: Boeing has significantly streamlined its 737 production during the past two years, but company officials said their cost improvements still don’t enable them to break even at the prices Airbus is quoting for the A320.
Although Keskar says that he is “not even going to try” reaching out to AirAsia because of the large number of A320s the carrier has on its order books, Boeing apparently hasn’t stopped trying to sway the airline in its favour. However, Boeing isn’t willing to sell at any price, even though Airbus is charging far less than Boeing is willing to accept. Boeing marketing Vice President Randy Baseler said “the only standard Airbus is setting is with price” on the 2004 Air Berlin deal, in which the German carrier ordered 70 Airbus A320 aircraft . “If you cut your prices enough, anybody will take them,” he said.
Few analysts feel Airbus offers a discount of as much as 60% to sway orders in their favour, while Airbus plays down the discount.
The matter only worsens with the projected 737MAX development costs expected at twice that for the A320NEO. The 737MAX is undergoing far more changes than the famous Airbus narrowbody family.
Boeing has lost out the no-frills, low cost airline segment to Airbus. Boeing once had monopolized this segment, especially with Southwest operating 588 Boeing 737 airplanes, and RyanAir operating 298 airplanes. Now, almost all start up low cost airlines fly the Airbus A320.
India’s “model" airline, IndiGo, and other start-ups: Air Deccan, Go Air, and Kingfisher Airlines (which eventually added the low cost arm Kingfisher RED) either fly or flew Airbus A320s. New airlines on the Indian horizon, whether credible or not, plan an A320 fleet: Skyjet Airways, and Volk Air.
TATA-SIA, the most talked about airline, will have an A320 fleet of 20, all leased, and AirAsia India, in line with the other AirAsias, will also fly with Airbus A320 aircraft.
SilkAir, with a brand that is not low cost but rather full service, will feature a cabin layout of 12 Business Class and 150 Economy class seats, representing an eight percent increase on SilkAir’s current seating capacity on the dual class A320s.
The only advantage in switching to a 737NG, for SilkAir, is increasing capacity without compromising on comfort through seat pitch. But it takes a lot to convince an airline to switch; especially when they could have flown more economical with the A320 sharklets, and saved on fleet transition costs. The real reason lies behind closed, motionless lips.
Stating a SilkAir press release, “A full-service carrier that is committed to creating enjoyable and reliable travel experiences, enhancements that customers can look forward to on the new aircraft include features such as the Boeing Sky Interior, which highlights new modern sculpted sidewalls and window reveals, LED lighting that enhances the sense of spaciousness, larger pivoting overhead stowage bins as well as in-seat audio and power supply for added convenience."
Then why was Spicejet, a low cost, missed by Airbus? SpiceJet began services in May 2005, when Air Asia was still flying an all Boeing 737 fleet, and just one year after EasyJet began transitioning to a predominantly Airbus A319 fleet. It was only in the December of 2005 that AirAsia received its first Airbus A320.
Said Kiran Rao, “We should have won the SpiceJet order the first time around, but it is just that at the time we had so many orders and took our eye off the ball,”.
But TATA-SIA, a full service carrier, should have been the target of Boeing. Dinesh Keshkar said that with the huge backlog for the 737, it was not able to provide narrowbodies to Tata SIA in line with its target to start operations in 2014.
The Indian MAX announcement that never came
Boeing in late 2012 had hoped to take its first order for the 737 MAX from an Indian airline. This hope was rekindled when Boeing had mentioned revealing a “sizable order” for the MAX from an Indian carrier, during the 2014 Singapore Airshow.
Twice, Boeing’s announcements never came, although media reports Jet and SpiceJet have signed for Boeing 737MAX airplanes, in the double digit range.
This is in sharp contrast to Airbus A320NEO orders placed by IndiGo and GoAir. Further widening the Airbus-Boeing gap are reports of the likelihood of IndiGo placing an order for 200-250 “more" aircraft.
Recording the largest aviation growth, Asia is where all airplane manufacturers have trained their guns. But Asia is a cost conscious market, where the likes of low cost airlines sprout often and thrive. That makes, statistically, a great market for Airbus, and a bleak outlook for Boeing, for now atleast. Few orders for Boeing 737 airplanes are overshadowed by Airbus’ wins.