Already 2017 is shaping up to be another good year for the narrowbody, especially the new-generation of ultra-efficient airliners.
Large orders have been placed for the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX. Boeing has announced its design for a further stretch of the MAX and is preparing to see the first of the MAX family enter service this year. Neos and Bombardier CSeries aircraft will continue their in-service momentum.
The widebody market, however, has hit the doldrums. Orders have slowed, Airbus and Boeing have both announced production rate cuts and there is talk—some of it already confirmed—of order deferrals.
But it would be wrong to cast a gloomy outlook for the industry as a whole or for the widebody market in particular. Projections are for another profitable year for the world’s airlines in the order of almost $30 billion. And the trend-line for air passenger growth continues its upward climb. Passenger numbers are expected to reach almost 4 billion this year, which will be a record. Reflecting that appetite to fly, airlines increased the number of unique city-pair connections in 2016 by more than 700 to over 18,000. By 2036, IATA forecasts that 7.2 billion passengers will travel by air annually, almost double the 3.8 billion who flew in 2016.
While narrowbodies—especially in the low-cost sector—will play a crucial role in delivering those billions of new fliers to their destinations, it must not be overlooked that those numbers cannot be met without the indispensable widebody. Airlines that invest in a widebody fleet are playing a long game — it’s an investment in anticipated passenger growth and in new destinations.
People don’t just want to travel; they want to go far away places. China’s outbound international market is booming. China and India will both eclipse the US as the world’s largest air traffic markets by 2029. The widebody is the only way to satisfy that demand, particularly on large hub-to-hub routes.
And while the new generation of narrowbodies is eminently capable of carrying people farther, there are operational and customer service advantages to the widebody that the narrowbody cannot easily deliver on long-haul flights. Twin aisles are quicker to board and deplane; they offer more bin space and lavatories, larger galleys and greater IFE options, as well as crew rest areas. They also offer more ways for airlines to customize and differentiate their product; that’s important in an increasingly competitive market.
Yes, there will be some order deferrals and yes, in some long-haul markets today there are airlines with a lot of capacity chasing the same passengers. But the upward trend in air travel demand is undeniable. The widebody is how that demand will be fulfilled.