Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest and most profitable carrier, is close to sealing a deal on as many as 20 Airbus A220 aircraft. The order, if it comes off, will be the first the airline has made since the fatal crash of its 737 MAX 8 earlier this year. Although the airline had been studying the A220 for some time, it had previously been reliant on larger Boeing 737 family aircraft for short-haul ops.
An A220 order for Ethiopian Airlines?
According to reporting from Bloomberg, the airline is on the brink of agreeing a deal for as many as 20 of the popular narrowbody planes. The deal, if it comes through, could be worth more than $1.6bn to Airbus, and would be only the second Airbus model to be ordered by the African giant.
Group CEO Tewolde GebreMariam told Bloomberg that the carrier sees the A220 as facilitating more direct point to point routes, a reversal of the airline’s previous strategy to operate larger aircraft between destinations with a stop along the way.
“It’s a good airplane — we have been studying it long enough,” he said.
Bloomberg reports that the airline is in ‘late-stage talks’ with Airbus, and that a decision should be reached by the end of the year. The order, the CEO says, would be in the region of 10 to 20 aircraft. It would be the first order the airline has placed since the fatal crash of its 737 MAX aircraft in March this year.
A kick in the teeth for Boeing?
Since 2005, Ethiopian Airlines had looked to be turning to Boeing for the majority of its fleet renewal plans. In February that year, it became the first African airline to order the 787 Dreamliner, putting in an order for five firm and five options of the type. It was the first African airline to operate the 777-200LR also, taking delivery of its first in late 2010.
However, not everything proceeded as planned. The deliveries of the first Dreamliners were initially anticipated to take place in June 2010. However, delays at Boeing’s end meant this was pushed back, possibly stimulating a retaliatory order by Ethiopian for 12 Airbus A350-900, made at the Dubai Air Show in 2009.
Nevertheless, Ethiopian still showed a preference for Boeing aircraft, ordering 10 737-800NG aircraft in January 2010. It also went ahead with an order for four 777F freighter aircraft in 2011, becoming again the first African airline to order the type. It has since gone on to order 20 737 MAX 8s with options for 15 more, as well as expressing an interest in the new 777X.
Right now, the airline’s fleet is very Boeing heavy, with just 12 of its 117 aircraft in service from the Airbus stable. Alongside a growing fleet of Dreamliners and A350s for long haul, the airline looks to be reliant on the 737 MAX 8 for short to medium haul missions. This is complemented by a 23 strong fleet of Dash 8-400s for regional ops, with 10 more due for delivery.
An order of the A220 would be disappointing for Boeing, who surely hoped to take care of Ethiopian’s future fleet strategy through a combination of their 737 MAX and the forthcoming tie up with Embraer. However, it’s not completely unexpected as the airline has been clear on its evaluation of the A220 for quite some time.
A long evaluation
Back when the A220 was nothing more than the Bombardier C Series, Ethiopian were eyeing it very closely. According to AIN Online, the airline had been studying the C Series for a couple of years when news emerged of Airbus taking over the program. As a result, Ethiopian put their plans of a 20 aircraft acquisition on ice. At the time, GebreMariam said,
“The C series is a very good airplane. We have been evaluating it for a long time. Our engineers, pilots, technicians, and economists have studied the aircraft and confirmed that it is fit for purpose for our mission especially in the 100-seat category.”
Despite this, as Airbus took over the marketing and branding of the aircraft, the airline took the decision to wait a little bit and see how things played out. They also indicated to AIN Online that studies into the 737 MAX were also being undertaken, to see if that could fit into the niche of the A220.
“We are closely studying the market if it can continue to grow to the level of the Boeing 737 Max, which is a 160-seater. With the fast growth that we see in the African continent this market may grow to that level and we may not need to add additional complexity with a new model aircraft and the additional need for training of pilots and technicians.”
Clearly, Ethiopian has come to the conclusion that the MAX does not tick all the boxes of the A220, and are now back at the table to negotiate a deal with Airbus. It will be interesting to see whether the deal comes off, and how it affects Ethiopian’s operations going forward if it does.