Qantas is eyeing Boeing’s new midsize aircraft 797 NMA as a possible replacement for its short-haul fleet. But Boeing’s NMA still remains very much in the conceptual stages. It might be a long wait for Qantas. Nonetheless, in comments published yesterday, Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce said he was hoping the NMA went into production.
A report in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, Wednesday, November 6, 2019, has Mr Joyce mulling on replacements for his short-haul fleet, currently dominated by Boeing’s 737-800. My Joyce is considering the A320, A321, 737 MAX and the 797 NMA. This order would be in addition to the A220s the airline is considering to replace its fleet of Fokker 100s and Boeing 717s.
Short-haul fleet renewal decision expected next year
Qantas intends to make a decision and a subsequent announcement about its short-haul fleet renewal in 2020. Mr Joyce will have to wipe the dust off his checkbook as it is going to be a busy 12 months of orders from Qantas. In addition to the short-haul fleet order and the Fokker 100 / Boeing 717 replacement order, the Project Sunrise order is flagged to be placed by the end of this year.
On the face of it, the NMA seems like an unusual short-haul choice for Qantas. The airline is looking to replace its short-haul fleet over the next 10 years. It’s entirely possible an aircraft can go from drawing board to departure gate in that time. But as Joanna Bailey reported in Simple Flying last month, there is no word from Boeing on when or even if the plane will be built.
To some extent, it could be a catch 22 situation. Boeing needs launch customers to move the aircraft off the drawing board. But launch customers need a timeline that isn’t going to blow out and be beset with problems.
And of course, Boeing’s current run with its new aircraft isn’t exactly stellar. New 787 Dreamliners were grounded with engine issues (strictly speaking not Boeing’s fault but still not a great look), the new 737 MAXs are grounded altogether, and production of the long-range 777-8 remains in limbo.
It doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about a timely and trouble-free entry into service for the 797 NMA.
What would Qantas do with the 797 NMA?
The other factor that makes the NMA a seemingly slightly oddball choice for Qantas is its size. The NMA can seat around 250 passengers and, remember, Qantas is thinking about this as a replacement for its short-haul fleet.
Its utility would be restricted to a few key routes, such as Sydney – Melbourne, Sydney – Brisbane, the transcontinental runs to Perth, and some selected busy short-haul international routes like Melbourne – Auckland and Sydney – Auckland.
You’d be hard-pressed to find other short-haul routes that have the passenger numbers to warrant a 250 seat aircraft. Sure, you could cut frequency, by cutting back say, two Melbourne – Adelaide flights to one flight. But Qantas’ domestic operations makes most of its money from business travel and that sector values frequency and choice.
From an operational point of view, there’s nothing to stop Qantas from deploying the NMA onto most short-haul routes. From an economic point of view, it wouldn’t make sense. The restrictions on where the NMA can fly and make money do make it an interesting choice for Qantas.
But to Mr Joyce, the 797 NMA seems to stack up. He told the Sydney Morning Herald;
“We’re looking at the second-largest city pair in the world, Melbourne-Sydney … and there are no more slots at [Sydney’s] Kingsford Smith at peak times.
That market will grow as the two cities are growing … [so] at some stage you want to have bigger aircraft.”
One possible order outcome in 2020 is a combination of an NMA order for the busiest trunk routes, smaller capacity aircraft such as the A321 for less busy trunk routes such as Adelaide – Brisbane, and smaller yet aircraft like the A220 to take over the Fokker and Boeing 717 routes.
Would this eventuate? It does seem an overly complex outcome with all the inherent problems in overcomplexity. But most of all it relies on the NMA eventuating. There are too many improbabilities and uncertainties with the NMA right now. For this reason, Mr Joyce’s NMA dreams might remain just that.
Could Alan Joyce really afford to take a punt on Boeing and its NMA? What do you think? Let us know and post a comment.