Smaller aircraft like the 737s and A320s have long been capable of flying longer-haul. Now, with the MAX back in the skies, the A321XLR on the horizon, and the A220 gaining popularity, the potential for long-haul narrowbody flights has reached a peak. As aviation recovers from the impact of COVID, will long-haul narrowbody become the normal way to fly?
Long-haul narrowbody flights are not exactly new
The trend for using smaller planes for long flights is not an entirely new concept. Since the advent of capable aircraft like the A320neo and 737 MAX family, plenty of airlines have been using narrowbody planes to reach far away destinations. Even the previous generations of aircraft like the 737 NG, 757 and A320ceo, have flight times of up to eight hours, making them fully capable of longer trips.
Using data from anna.aero, Statista published some figures on this in 2018. In the US, more than 660 narrowbody flights took place every week that were defined as long-haul, being of greater than 4,500 km in distance. Copa Airlines and United were the two to make the most use of narrowbodies for long-haul, operating 437 and 310 flights per week respectively.
Although the concept of smaller planes flying further is nothing new, it’s a trend that has been accelerating since these figures were put together, and is set to get a further boost as the industry emerges from its biggest crisis to date.
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Why the pandemic would accelerate the trend for long-haul narrowbody flights
Taking into account the impact COVID has had on the aviation industry, we can begin to see plenty of reasons that operating single-aisle planes will be increasingly attractive in the post-pandemic future. These include:
- Low demand: Despite the positive news of a potential vaccine, traveler confidence has been shaken. Even a year or two from now, we’re unlikely to see demand back to where it was last year. Smaller planes are easier to fill, so will be the aircraft of choice while passenger numbers remain suppressed.
- Lower operational costs: While the cost per seat mile will vary from one airline to another, the FAA’s published average costs per block hour highlight the expense of laying on a large aircraft. The figures show a twin-engine widebody costs on average $8,575 per block hour, while a narrowbody costs from $4,054 – $4,740 depending on its size. Sure, with more seats you can make more money, but when you can’t be guaranteed to fill those seats, a smaller, cheaper to operate plane makes sense.
- More point-to-point opportunities: Long-haul travel has traditionally operated through hub and spoke services, with passengers connecting through large airports. However, in a post-pandemic world, there is opportunity to launch more point-to-point services, connecting secondary airports directly and removing the need (and associated risk) for the passenger to transit in a foreign country. Single aisle planes make far more sense on these long, thin routes.
The key takeaway from this is that narrowbody planes are going to be cheaper to operate. Many airlines will not come out of the crisis in good financial shape, and a significant number will be burdened by heavy debt. Operating single-aisle flights on key long-haul routes will enable airlines to test the waters, so to speak, without the risks of putting a widebody on the route.
Like it or not, many of the long-haul flights of the future may be operated by smaller planes. However, that’s not to say that passengers will lose out greatly on comfort. Many operators are installing lie-flat seats on their narrowbody planes, and the relative newness of these aircraft means that, even in economy, the experience is likely to be more pleasant than rattling across the Atlantic on an old 747.
Will you embrace a long-haul narrowbody future in aviation, or will you seek out the widebodies only for your longer flights? Let us know in the comments.