Airbus’s confirming this week that it will lift the a production rate of its A320 single aisle family of jets to 60 a month by mid 2019 has triggered informed talk of similar ambitions for the Boeing 737 family, and possibly even sooner.
It has also given rise to ‘analyst anxiety’ over the risks of oversupply, and elsewhere in the industry, of pilot and airspace and airport capacity undersupply.
These are crucial concerns, and have been validated many times in briefings by the two dominant jet airliner makers in recent years.
However despite their efforts to influence pilot training, airspace management and airport ‘efficiency’ measures, the prime task confronting Airbus and Boeing is to deliver what the market most seeks, which is reliable and economical single aisle jets for what are generally short to medium distance city pairs.
Airbus has 5500 orders for A320 family jets on its books, compared to 4200 for Boeing’s 737 lines, and both figures change about as quickly as an old fashioned talking clock.
Combined they are unlikely to work their way through those lists as fast as simple arithmetic might suggest because there are around 12,000 similar jets in service today, and with each year the operational imperative to replace the older ones before they become too costly to maintain changes the market realities.
Old jets are just as safe as new ones, provided they are maintained to increasingly costly and mandatory service standards based mainly on the number of pressurization cycles they have flown.
These require with age, extensive disassembly, inspection and reconstruction procedures, with massive replacement of electrical wiring but one of the prime areas of concern, as well as compulsory replacement of some parts of the structure.
Thus a very old jet may in fact be in critical measure, a very new jet, in a condition so costly to achieve that buying an all new example makes more and more sense.
As Airbus and Boeing have discovered, the market is also moving to larger versions of each single aisle family. It is more than likely that by the middle of the next decade the action as far as Airbus is concerned will see is largest sized single aisle, the A321 model, grabbing most of the deliveries, all by then in the NEO or new engine technology version. Boeing however has run into a problem with its largest competing model of the 737, the -9 MAX, and has been dropping hints, even patents, for a new wide body (sort of) middle of the market jet aimed at around 300 seats, or 50 more than the most stretched A321.
This 757 plus sized jet is hinted at first deliveries for around 2025, and would inevitably change the end game for the A320 NEOs and 737 MAXs by provoking a new Airbus design.
This could see the market demand for new single aisle jets remain as or more robust than it is now predicted, but fitted into radically new designs that might just be also more easy to fit into and out of for passengers.
Getting out of a single aisle Airbus or Boeing can take the longest 10 or more minutes of your life, especially if everyone has brought what looks like their worldly possessions with them and stuffed them into bins designed for half the number of seats found on most jets today. In many ways the boom in single aisle jets is a curtain raiser to the most challenging period yet in aviation, as the need to cut the use of fossil carbon emitting fuels becomes a rock hard barrier to the expansion of flight as we know it today, and the India, Vietnam and emerging Africa economies go where China is going now.
The latest A320s and 737s may well be the last examples of airliner travel as we know it today before the industry is compelled to remake itself in a world with very pressing needs of a different type.