The AirAsia X order for 10 Airbus A350-900s plus 5 options announced at the Paris Air Show sets up an interesting contest with Jetstar, which is supposed to get the first 10 or 15 Boeing 787-8s in the currently deferred Qantas group order for 65 of the Dreamliners.
Each type is the competing Airbus or Boeing version of the ‘plastic fantastic’ high composite structure airliners which are said to slash fuel burn and maintenance costs, although in terms of floor space or seating opportunities, the Airbus range is slightly larger than its nearest Boeing equivalent.
And AirAsia and Jetstar are competing new model trans border low fare airline franchises. The business models are identical, and not yet fully proven, just like the jets they have chosen for future long haul operations.
Both have international divisions, with AirAsia X the Malaysia based brand’s long haul subsidiary already flying A330s to Kuala Lumpur from the Gold Coast, Melbourne and Perth, with Sydney expected to be confirmed soon.
Their international ambitions also overlap on the ‘kangaroo routes’ between Australia and Europe, where the originally promised, repeatedly promised, long range capabilities of the 787-8 would allow Qantas to re-enter markets such as Amsterdam, Rome and Manchester and expand the network into new ones.
Those promises turned to dust. The Qantas strategy for Jetstar, at least as far as timing is concerned, has been usurped by AirAsia X, and to say that senior management has been embarrassed and very unhappy with the situation is an understatement that quickly cost Boeing $292 million in cash compensation.
However there are now two Dreamliners on the flight line at Everett ready to deliver- any flight test glitches aside- on newly promised first deliveries of the Dreamliner in the second quarter of next year.
Not unfortunately delivered to Jetstar that soon, but the order despite some bickering between the customer and Boeing is still alive, and so are hopes in Jetstar.
The first flight of the 787-8 is promised for before 30 June. That’s two acid bath promises. First flight by the end of June and first deliveries by the end of next June.
How would the two types compete in actual service? On the comfort side the Jetstar 787-8 even with just over 300 passengers and a nine across, or three, by three, by three seat arrangement in economy, and the infamously tight Jetstar seat pitch, is likely to trounce the A350.
This is because AirAsia X already puts economy seats in its A330s and A340 in an exquisitely uncomfortable nine across format where other airlines offer eight across, and those jets are narrower than the A350. Which means, AirAsia X will almost certainly jam them in 10 across in the wider new model Airbus.
The other advantage of the Jetstar 787-8 will be the amazing windows. The seats may only be the size of 737 seats, but there is something very pleasing about large windows, even if you are seated in the middle of the cabin.
AirAsia X and Jetstar (international) also have premium economy cabins. The competing amenity of the A350 and Dreamliners may produce different results in carriers that don’t use punitively tight seating, and in some markets the inherently larger capacity of the entire A350 range may be an operating advantage over the 787-8 and the stretched -9 version.
But that equation can cut both ways. Larger capacity jets generally deliver lower seats costs through economies of scale, but ‘right sizing’ capacity to a slightly smaller jet like the Dreamliner can also produce a better outcome in some markets.
By around 2014 or 2015 both AirAsia X and Jetstar will have substantial fleets of 787s and A350s competing side by side to Europe, and the owners of each carrier may deliver one verdict as to which is more profitable, while their customers come to a different conclusion based on amenity.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.