As fuel costs gobble up a bigger slice of an airline's revenue, the choice of aircraft type becomes ever more crucial. Boeing and Airbus have new single-aisle, middle-range aircraft on order with fuel efficiency as the main selling point and Virgin Australia and Jetstar have signed up, but each has chosen a different aircraft.
Virgin Australia has recently converted orders for 10 Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft to larger MAX 10 aircraft, which will be delivered from 2022. The airline has 40 737 MAX planes on order in total.
Qantas, meanwhile, has gone with Airbus. Back in February the airline announced an order for 18 Airbus A321LRs (LR for long range) for its Jetstar fleet, with the first delivery scheduled for 2020.
Which of these two aircraft is going to rule the skies?
The Boeing 737 MAX 10 will be the latest aircraft to wear the "737" designation, the best-selling commercial jetliner. The first 737 entered service with Lufthansa 50 years ago. Since that time so many new variants have appeared – the 737-200 replacing the original 737-100, then the 737-300 and so on – that Boeing transitioned to the 737 MAX nomenclature after the 737-900.
The MAX 10 is the latest of these, seating between 188 and 204 passengers in a two-class configuration, with a maximum seating capacity of 230. With a commercial launch date of 2020, the aircraft will have a range of 3300 nautical miles, or 6110 kilometres.
While the 737 series has been a winner for Boeing, it's recently faced stiff competition from its Airbus equivalent, the A321neo. The "neo" stands for "new engine option", since the aircraft is powered by more fuel-efficient CFM International LEAP-1A or Pratt & Whitney PW1000G engines, and comes with large wing sharklets, as Airbus calls the upturned wingtips on its aircraft. The original version is the A321ceo, "current engine option", which has a lower maximum seating capacity of 236 passengers, and a much shorter range of 5950 kilometres. Practically the same specs as the Boeing 737 MAX 10, which is still two years away from service.
Is the A321 a MAX killer?
The A321 has been a major headache for Boeing, outselling its current 737, the MAX 9, by a ratio of five-to-one. According to Airfleets.net there are now more than 1700 Airbus A321s flying around the globe, and US airlines are among the biggest operators. In December 2017, Delta Air Lines announced an order for 100 Airbus A321neos, with another 100 options, joining JetBlue Airways, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines in the list of US carriers flying the A321.
Most of Delta's A321neos will be built at the Airbus assembly line in Mobile, Alabama, which insulates the order from the tariff wars that the Trump administration has been engineering with the rest of the world, at least as far as Airbus' US customers are concerned. Note too that this follows the earlier decision of the US Commerce Department to slap a tariff of close to 300 per cent on Delta's order for 75 Canadian-built Bombardier CSeries jets, following tough lobbying from Boeing.
That tariff was later rescinded in an unanimous decision by the US International Trade Commission, a panel of nonpartisan government experts, with airline industry analysts concluding that Boeing's bid for tariff protection was a case of corporate overreach. Boeing doesn't even have an aircraft that competes directly with the single-aisle Bombardier, and neither had Boeing put in a bid for the Delta order at the heart of the case.
It is in direct response to competition from the A321 that Boeing developed the MAX 10 – but has Airbus skated away yet again?
The Airbus A321LR, the variant destined for Jetstar, seats 206 in a typical two-class configuration, with a maximum seating capacity of 244. Range is 3995 nautical miles or 7400 kilometres. This gives the A321LR a trans-Atlantic flight capability, a fact underlined by Airbus' advertising for the plane showing the Statue of Liberty on the left and the Eiffel Tower on the right. The extended range has been achieved by the addition of a third fuel tank, increasing the maximum take-off weight to 97 tonnes, 3.5 tonnes greater than for the A321.
The longer range of the A321LR is a new frontier for this aircraft type. While it's the popular trans-Atlantic route that motivated Airbus to develop the LR version, in the Australian context that makes the A321LR capable of operating on sectors such as the 3400-nautical mile Singapore-Sydney route, the 3640-mile route between Auckland and Denpasar, Melbourne to Tahiti at 3620 miles and Perth to Hong Kong at 3260 nautical miles. All these routes are beyond the operational range of the Boeing 737 MAX 10.
Boeing claims the 737 MAX 10 will be the most profitable single-aisle aircraft for the 20 airlines that have already signed on the dotted line. Virgin Australia certainly hopes that proves to be the case, but in the meantime there might be some fingernail chewing at Virgin's Brisbane HQ.