Last week, Papua New Guinea’s national carrier Air Niugini delayed delivery of its Boeing 737 MAX jets until 2024. The Port Moresby based airline had four MAXs on order with deliveries due to start this year.
But the grounding of the 737 MAX, the subsequent slowdown and ultimate suspension of production have played havoc with airlines around the world, not least PNG’s national carrier.
Aviation watchers around Air Niugini’s home patch know the airline has been flexing its wings lately with some interesting new routes and a raft of announcements. According to Air Niugini, the deferment of the MAXs will give the carrier time to conduct a review of its future fleet plans.
What is interesting is the announcement that those future fleet plans could include jets from the Embraer E2 family.
What Air Niugini had to say
Last week, the boss of Air Niugini, Alan Milne said in a statement;
“This delay (of the MAXs) will give the airline more time to complete a broader review of its fleet plans, including a future replacement type for its smaller Fokker regional jets. This will then determine if the MAX is still appropriate for Air Niugini, or whether other Boeing products would better suit as a replacement for the airline’s existing Fokker, Boeing 737 and 767 aircraft types”
Mr Milne also raised the possibility of the Embraer E2s as a substitute for the MAX pending Boeing’s deal to buy into Embraer finalizing. Today, Brazil approved Boeing’s purchase of Embraer.
On the surface, this reads like another airline getting cold feet when it comes to the 737 MAX. That’s hardly news. But the Embraer is a tantalizing option for Air Niugini.
An eccentric but interesting airline
Let me say upfront that I’m quite the fanboy of Air Niugini. It is grossly overpriced but also pleasantly eccentric. The throne seats in the business class cabins of its 767s are a must-do and I rather wish they’d join oneworld. But the Air Niugini fleet is aging and, like any self-respecting South Pacific airline, it usually loses bucket loads of money.
In common with many other airlines, a “transformation” program is in full swing.
Decisions to be made
Emily Derrick touched on one of the challenges facing Air Niugini in her Simple Flying article last week. The airline needs to refresh and replace much of its fleet, but this costs money. Deferring the 737 MAXs inevitably gives Air Niugini some financial breathing space.
The Embraer E2 is smaller than the 737 MAX. It is also cheaper. As long-time Boeing customer and to keep them away from the clutches of Airbus, you might safely assume Boeing will cut Air Niugini a decent price now their controlling stake in Embraer looks like going ahead.
With a range of 2,600 nautical miles, the Embraer E2 could shape up as an ideal replacement for Air Niugini’s fleet of Fokker jets which are up to almost 30 years old. With that range, the E2 could scoot to the airline’s destinations across Melanesia and the South Pacific, as far south as Melbourne, even up to Singapore.
As a middle aircraft between the Fokkers and the 737 MAX, an aircraft like the Embraer E2 could be a good substitute for both, thereby both simplifying and modernising Air Niugini’s fleet.
Still leaves the issue of what to do with the 767s
But what to do with Air Niugini’s two widebody planes, a pair of Boeing 767-300ERs that are 20 and 28 years old respectively? These are two rather fabulous old planes that are nonetheless noisy, inefficient, and expensive to run. What’s the alternative to them? A pair of 787s? Unimaginative maybe, but safe, contemporary, and efficient.
While Air Niugini’s Alan Milne did voice the possibility of looking at Airbus aircraft, he went on to emphasize his airline’s close relationship with Boeing. Mr Milne said Air Niugini was “committed” to working with Boeing to meet its future aircraft needs.
For Boeing, that is at least something. For Air Niugini, the deferment of the MAXs allows the airline to look at its fleet needs going forward and opens up a raft of interesting future possibilities.