If there is one thing that players in the long-haul, low-cost sector agree on is there is a market for such services. But those executives disagree on what markets exactly they should serve and what aircraft they should fly. This became clear at the Paris Air Forum, an industry gathering held on the eve of the Paris Air Show,

“Big routes with big aircraft will be the focus,” French Bee CEO Marc Rochet said. “You have to go into the large catchment areas,” Norwegian CEO Björn Kjos said. And because they are often slot-constrained, operating larger aircraft is the better choice, in his opinion, rather than betting on long-haul-capable narrowbodies such as the Airbus A321LR or soon-to-be-launched XLR.

New York-based LCC JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes, by contrast, believes there is “a tremendous amount of opportunity with lots of unserved routes in Europe” that his airline could enter with the A321LR.

Executives from Norwegian, French Bee, JetBlue and International Airlines Group (IAG) subsidiary Level stressed the segment they are trying to build is promising. “Some will be very successful, some will have to fight,” Rochet said. “You definitely have to do something new in the cabin, in marketing and sales, and even if the demand is there [realize that] not all routes will work.”

Rochet’s French Bee is growing an Airbus A350-900 fleet and takes about one additional aircraft per year. The key to him is high cabin density and high utilization. “We went about 5,000 hrs. per year. If you are below, you cannot make money.” Rochet also said the network must be aligned to changing traffic flows and seasonality; therefore, not only flying East-West, but also North-South. The airline has one A330-300 and two A350-900s—with a third A350 scheduled to be delivered soon.

Kjos pointed out that it is “incredibly difficult to make it work without a feeder network,” although Rochet disagreed, saying, “I don’t like feeding too much—it is adding costs.” The two airlines are in different strategic positions as French Bee has the advantage of being based in Paris, one of the largest origin-and-destination markets in Europe, whereas Norwegian’s network is broader.

Kjos said he would never have taken the risk of building up a long-haul, LCC in Iceland such as WOW Air, which ceased flying earlier this year. Nordic LCC Primera Air, another failed carrier, was “subscale” in his opinion.

The proposed A321XLR, widely believed to launch at the Paris Air Show, is being met with high interest in the sector. “There is no one who has not looked at it,” Level CEO Vincent Hodder said. He believes the aircraft could be a “fundamental gamechanger on the transatlantic market” with range for up to 10 hrs. of flying. The aircraft, being a narrowbody, would also make it easier for LCCs on short-haul routes to enter long-range flying. Level sees it complementing larger aircraft like the A330-200 it flies from Barcelona to Santiago de Chile.

Even Rochet, who favors large aircraft, sees a role for the A321XLR in existing networks when it comes to adjusting capacity downward in the low season. He would, however, not use it as an airline’s sole long-haul aircraft.

Kjos pointed out that in slot-constraint markets, such as New York or London, it makes more sense to fly larger aircraft to maximize the use of scarce airport capacity; therefore, narrowbodies should be deployed to smaller catchment areas.

Hayes said JetBlue has looked at the A321XLR but is sticking to the A321LR as it launches European services to London. The aircraft, with around 600 nm more range, would allow JetBlue to fly deeper into Europe, he said. 

Jens Flottau, jens.flottau@aviationweek.com