Given the number of Airbus A319neos and Boeing 737-7s in their backlogs, it’s easy to conclude that the 150-seat aircraft’s future is bleak. The two dominant OEMs have more than 10,500 outstanding A320neo and 737 MAX-family orders, yet—based on current commitments—fewer than 150 of them will be the smallest versions of each family. 

Part of the reason: upgauging. Operators, seeking to lower per-seat operating costs, want as many seats as possible onboard—especially narrowbodies. That means ordering larger versions of current models, and installing new, slim-line seats to add density to existing airframes. New York-based JetBlue Airways, which changed its A320neo orders to A321neos and is converting its 150-seat A320s to 162 seats, offers examples of both. 

The upgauging trend has widened the gap between large regional jets—typical capacity, 75-100 seats—and the most popular narrowbodies, notably the A320ceo/neo and 737-800s/-8s. And while the newest A319 and 737-7 don’t appear poised to fly into that gap, recent activity suggests that two other models—one already part of the Airbus family, and one headed for a tie-up with Boeing—are set to stake major claims in what could be an unexpectedly intriguing market.

Just before July’s Farnborough Air Show, JetBlue announced at 60-aircraft MOU for Airbus A220s. Formerly the Bombardier CSeries, the A220 is now part of a partnership that is majority-controlled by Airbus. JetBlue’s reasoning for choosing the A220 was compelling: the aircraft will replace its 100-seat Embraer E190s. The A220s will carry more passengers—something JetBlue says will help it maximize some routes that are too busy for the E190, but can’t support A320s at the frequencies JetBlue needs to maintain sufficient market presence. 

Unlike the E190s, the A220s also have enough range—about 3,200 nm—to fly US transcontinental routes. For JetBlue, which has three “focus cities”—Boston, New York, and Fort Lauderdale—on the Eastern Seaboard and an established presence in the Los Angeles area, this is big.

JetBlue picked the A220 over Embraer’s E195-E2—soon to be part of Boeing’s lineup following a commercial-business merger—but it was close. The E2 isn’t a clean-sheet design like the A220, and doesn’t quite have the Airbus’ range (both are powered by the Pratt & Whitney GTF geared turbonfan). But the E2 has been ordered by Brazil’s Azul and mega-lessor AerCap, while the smaller E190-E2 is flying with Norway’s Wideroe, which operates its 114-seat, single-class aircraft on domestic routes and plans to start flights to Hamburg and Munich.

The most intriguing plans for these new entrants are from carriers that see them as bedrocks of their business plans. Latvia’s airBaltic, the A220-300 (CS300) launch customer, has unveiled plans to have an all-A220 fleet within a few years. CEO Martin Gauss says the carrier has enough confidence in the A220 to jettison its 11 737s and 12 Bombardier Q400s and bet its future on the new Airbus. 

Gauss offered insight on what the change would mean, using the carrier’s Riga-Brussels route as an example. Currently flown with 76-seat Q400s, putting an A220-300 on it cuts per-seat costs by nearly 60%. Plus, the jet is faster, which allows higher utilization. The big question, Gauss says: will there be enough demand to fill the larger aircraft?

In the US, serial airline entrepreneur David Neeleman appears ready to pose the same question on a number of point-to-point routes. Neeleman, who had hands in getting Morris Air, JetBlue, WestJet, and Azul off the ground, is planning a new US-based carrier, and used Farnborough as a backdrop to announce an MOU for 60 A220s. 

The veteran industry executive didn’t offer many details, other than saying the as-yet-unnamed carrier will launch in 2021, and will build a point-to-point network. He did, however, laud the A220’s range as one of the deciding factors over the E195-E2, noting it can fly both across the U.S. and even across the Atlantic from the far eastern U.S to far Western Europe—similar to what WestJet (from Eastern Canada) and Norwegian, among others, are doing with 737s.

The key to strategies such as airBaltic’s and Neeleman’s will be whether the carriers can find enough medium-haul, thin routes to deploy the aircraft and still steer clear of incumbent competition. Being upstarts, with lower labor costs, will help. Deploying efficient, new-generation aircraft purpose-built and right-sized for the markets, as opposed to truncated, heavy derivatives of larger models, offers another advantage.

“These airplanes could very well be the next mini 787, flying long and thin routes, or an RJ on steroids disrupting flows within the system,” says William Swelbar, chief industry analyst for Delta Airport Consultants. “The question for both the [mature] US and European markets is, are there sufficient route opportunities available to deploy large numbers of this new technology?”

AirBaltic and Neeleman are among those betting yes. As the upgauge trend continues, the bet may become an even smarter one, and a new, hot market segment—fitting snugly between regional jets and the industry’s most numerous models—could quickly emerge.

Quotables

“This is a crazy industry. I am literally fired every other day in the press.”

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz at the Economics Club event in Washington DC

“Airports and airlines are like family—constantly fightingand envious of one another—with each thinking the other is better off. We, as airlines, are jealous because you enjoy higher profit margins. You think we get [a] better deal, because we are more sexy. In the end, it’s not about profit or perceived sexiness, but a joint future.”  

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr at ACI Europe in Brussels

“We are enjoying the party, but there are a lot of clouds in the sky, a lot of uncertainty.”

ACI Europe director general Olivier Jankovec on how European airports must be ready for change.

“It’s not alarmist; it’s not scaremongering. It is an extreme situation, and everyone says that’s not going to happen. But until the regulatory authorities sit and discuss the detail, it’s a huge risk.”

UK aerospace trade association ADS Paul Everitt on how aviation will be affected by Brexit.

“All options are still possible, including the most dramatic ones.”

European Commission director general for mobility and transport Henrik Hololei, on Brexit, speaking at the International Aviation Club in Washington DC.