Thursday, April 11, 2013

What kind of plane is this, anyway?

I keep hearing this question from customers on my Berlin trips this month. Likely, because my airline is employing a rather novel solution in aircraft type for the Newark to Berlin service.

When commercial airlines began flying jets "overseas", most started with the venerable Boeing 707 or Douglas DC8. By today's standards, both were "narrow bodies" (neither is in service any longer) which featured 3 x 3 seating in Economy. The configuration was so well-received, that the 707 cross-section is more-or-less identical to subsequent Boeing narrow bodies such as the 727 and 737. Even today, the newest versions of the 737 and the soon to be introduced 737MAX feature this ubiquitous arrangement.

While narrow bodied airplanes have remained the status quo domestically, "capacity" in the form of wide bodied jets quickly became the choice for international flights between major cities, flights operated by what were once called "flag carriers." Led by the "jumbo" Boeing 747, aircraft like the Lockheed L1011 and Douglas DC10 with their twin aisles, spacious cabins, and "modern" amenities replaced the 707 and DC8 on lucrative, high-visibility international and long-haul domestic trips. Of course, all of this happened in an era when gasoline for your car was $0.25 a gallon. As the cost of petroleum skyrocketed, so did the cost of operating high-profile, gas-guzzling aircraft with 3-4 engines. Technology was improving and efficiency became as important as prestige when profit-margins were squeezed. Add the fact that "open skies" agreements and consumer demand led to the opening of many new international routes between "secondary" cities which didn't merit the excessive capacity of huge aircraft. So the previously sacrosanct "safety" issue of having more than 2 engines on aircraft in international service was replaced by the desire to operate at a profit and with a variety of origin and destination cities.

Two-engine wide bodies from Boeing ad Airbus replaced their behemoth Multi-engine forebears on all but a handful of technically challenging services (dubbed ultra-long haul). The introduction of the extended range and long range 777 and A330 airplanes paved the way for the next generation of international aircraft: the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 XWB (extra wide body) which ill both specialize in profitably serving "long, thin routes" (long is self-explanatory, thin implies not enough passenger demand for a jumbo aircraft.)

Some routes, like the one that I am flying this month (Newark/Berlin) require a different approach to operate profitably. These routes are known in the industry as a "short to medium, thin route", terminology which describes distance and demand. My airline has employed a rather novel approach to make this market work strategically. Within our fleet, we have several "variants" of just about every fleet-type we operate. The term variants can mean anything from winglet modifications to de-rated or enhanced engine performance to seating configuration. The aircraft in question, a Boeing 757-200 variant, utilizes several means to enhance its range and efficiency: it's Rolls Royce RB211 engines are powerful, efficient, quiet and Eco-friendly and when combined with its 6' blended wing winglets, makes the aircraft super efficient over distances normally outside this aircraft types range.

What surprises our customers the most is the seating configuration. These aircraft have essentially the same configuration as the original 707s and DC8s from the 1950s and 60s! Two x two in "business class" and 3 x 3 in economy, all on either side of a single aisle. I suppose it is a little startling at first glance, as we've all grown to think of "international" aircraft being wide bodies, with two aisles. But even this aircraft usage is not the most extreme. Lufthansa, our German alliance partner, employes the smallest Airbus commercial aircraft, the A319, to fly between German centers of business and industry and the U.S. Now THAT would be a market with very limited demand!

In spite of the shock of seeing a single-aisle aircraft used in international service, the 757-200 has proven to be unusually reliable and imminently suitable for the task. In "Business" class, these aircraft feature 16 lie-flat sleeper seats of the same size and manufacture found on our much larger 777s and 787s. The service offered onboard is identical to that on larger aircraft. Operating parameters are the same, insuring reliable, timely schedules.

The ultimate benefit of employing this unconventional aircraft solution is that it allows cities like Berlin and other "thin" destinations to enjoy non-stop service to major cities, like New York without a connection via a third city, saving HOURS in travel time. Berlin, Oslo, Stockholm, Shannon, Dublin & Barcelona are some of the cities where the 757-200 makes good business sense. To London/Heathrow, for example, the 757 allows us to replace one daily widebody operation with several 757 flights, providing better departure and arrival options for our customers.

Bigger is not always better.

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