The Airbus A220 isn’t really a new aircraft. Bombardier first flew the CSeries in September 2013, with its entry into service in July 2016. And yet, the A220 seems to be answering problems that we’re not quite having yet. Airbus predicts a need for 7,000 A220s over the next two decades, and that’s probably not too overoptimistic. Here’s how the A220 is the plane of the future, today.
What do passengers and airlines of the future want?
The landscape of aviation is changing. In the past, airlines operated on hub and spoke models, passengers were happy to fit around schedules and the price of jet fuel was so low that efficiency wasn’t a huge consideration. Clearly, aviation today is very different.
Increased competition among airlines has meant carriers need to differentiate their service levels in order to maintain their share of the passengers. This has often meant flying more frequently on smaller planes, to make traveling with that carrier more flexible. Rising fuel prices and price wars on fares mean airlines are operating often on shoestring profits, and seeking more efficient aircraft as a result.
For passengers, convenience and value for money have become key. Passengers want to see a range of departure times at major airports, and also expect to fly from smaller airports direct, rather than always being forced to transfer through hubs. There is also a growing impetus to satisfy passengers’ green streaks too, with some flight comparison sites listing the CO2 savings of one carrier over another and potentially influencing the passenger choice.
As time moves on, the price of jet fuel is only going to go one way. Fossil fuels are a finite resource, and although biofuels can go some way to making up the shortfall, they are more expensive to produce. Passengers, while their numbers go up, will be increasingly aware of their trip’s impact on the environment, and the notion that one direct flight is less carbon-intensive than a one-stop itinerary is likely to become more of an issue in the future too.
How does the A220 deliver on these future demands?
The A220 has been built to tackle many of these future needs. Whether Bombardier foresaw these trends when they first announced the CSeries is unknown, but whether it was strategic or just a product of good design, the A220 answers these needs in spades.
Amazing fuel efficiency
The A220 has been designed to be a highly fuel-efficient aircraft. Considering the number of passengers on board, the efficiency is advertised by Airbus at 120 miles per gallon (MPG). Compared to other aircraft in its class, this outstrips almost every other model by some stretch. To compare, the 737 MAX 8 achieves 103.2 MPG and the A321neo 107.4 MPG.
In terms of fuel burn, the A220 was marketed to achieve 20% better fuel burn than similarly sized aircraft. In practice, the A220-100 has been reported to achieve 9.1lb/mile on a short (500nmi) flight, and 10.1lb/mile on longer flights. The -300 has been recorded to achieve between 10.11lb/mile and 11.01lb/mile. This is lower than any other aircraft with a similar capacity, the closest contender being the A320neo which was recorded at 9.9lb/mile over a 660nmi flight.
This lower fuel burn sets the aircraft up to perform well for airlines both now and into the far future, ticking boxes for both profitability and environmental consciousness in one swoop.
Point to point potential
The huge range of the A220 makes it possible to fly great distances and to serve point to point routes that are not feasible with a larger aircraft. In May last year, Airbus expanded the range of both models of the A220, with the -300 now pegged at 3,350 nmi and the -100 at 3,400 nmi. This, along with the achievements of extended ETOPS for the type, makes trips across the Atlantic possible, as well as routes connecting secondary cities on different continents.
Added to this is the ability of the A220 to land on shorter runways or at difficult to access airports. A well-known example of this is London City, which is limited by the high buildings around it and the short runway. The A220 has been used by SWISS for some time to access this restricted airport, and its ability to land in similar conditions all over the world makes it possible for the aircraft to service smaller airports in underserved destinations.
Frequency over capacity
The high efficiency of the A220 makes it possible for airlines to deploy two or three of the same aircraft at various points throughout the day, rather than one large aircraft, and still operate on a similar profit level. This means that on high demand routes, airlines could offer multiple departures per day, rather than expecting passengers to manage with just one departure on a large aircraft.
Over recent years, we’ve seen many airlines moving away from shifting huge numbers of people around the world on widebody aircraft to providing more regular services on smaller planes. This is increasingly important for business travelers, who want to maximize their time at meetings and conferences but without shelling out for a hotel at the end of the day.
When it works well, and when it doesn’t
For a prime example of how well the A220 works for airlines, one only has to take a look at airBaltic. The carrier has been working towards becoming an all-A220 airline for the past couple of years, and with the retirement of its remaining Boeing 737s slated to take place this summer, it won’t be long until it achieves this goal.
Clearly the A220 is working wonderfully for airBaltic, and has enabled it to move from being a very small, niche carrier into the rising European powerhouse it is today. However, there are times when relying on one aircraft type may not be such a great strategy.
You may remember, in October last year, SWISS grounded its entire A220 fleet over concerns about engine shutdowns. This followed a spate of inflight issues which had seen SWISS’ A220s being diverted and even one uncontained engine failure.
That turned out to be a bit of a storm in a teacup, as all the aircraft were checked and back in the skies within a couple of days. However, if there had been a major issue requiring extensive repair or replacement, airBaltic could have been in serious trouble.
Nevertheless, for the time being, the A220 remains a serious contender for the future of short- to mid-haul flights, and seems to be ticking plenty of boxes for both airlines and passengers years to come.