Could this version of the Airbus A380 turn out to be too small for Changi?
Could this version of the Airbus A380 turn out to be too small for Changi?

Could it be that the US will get a lesson in how to curb the growth of Middle East carriers by doing unlimited access traffic deals instead of seeking to curb successful foreign competitors as somehow ‘un-American’?

That possibility is raised in the latest official European response to news that traffic between eastern Asia and the EU is surging, but that the growth is mostly being picked up by the ME3 (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways) rather than the likes of Singapore Airlines.

Instead of supporting the American carriers approach where the US3 (American, United and Delta) are calling for a shut the door strategy because of the unfairness of airlines with rich visionary sovereign shareholders, the EC’s new director-general for mobility and transport, Mr Henrik Hololei, has spoken about an ME bypass involving unlimited access between Asia and Europe for the flag carriers of each.

Read about his strategy settings in this story in the Singapore Straits Times, and consider what is implied between the lines as well.

There are of course, some practical and mainly infrastructure obstacles to his approach, that no doubt Airbus would gladly help solve with 400-500 new A380s for those carriers in total, which would be needed if as currently forecast, demand between the two trading blocs trebles from 2015 levels in the next 20 years.

Such demand is going to have to do without the brand new airports and super efficient  air traffic control systems that the industry has talked about for the last 20 years, as it ought to be obvious by now that they aren’t going to happen. Especially the bit about new airports in Europe!

That’s where demand for an A380 NEO, or CEO, comes into focus. Where the future management mind of Boeing might also realise that in a hotter world with rising field temperatures, in a much busier market with much the same airports as today, a large four engined jet able to handle 700-900 passengers per jet in 46C+ conditions at MTOW is indeed a necessity.

The future will be very cruel to larger versions of both the 777 and A350 families where the number of excessively hot days per year begin to play havoc with big twin engined airliner performance requirements.

Mr Hololei is clearly throwing down a challenge to the managements of European and Asian carriers to stop thinking short term and embrace the merits of open competition rather than continue to surrender growth to the ME intermediaries.

There are no technical obstacles even in today’s newest airliners to full payload large jets flying non-stop between eastern Asia and western Europe, except when it comes to getting airborne at the maximum permissible weight in very hot conditions.

However such an open skies arrangement between two major trading blocs does make life difficult for Qantas and Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand, in that there are no viable non-stop Sydney-London airliners being made, even considering the operational advantages from current low fuel prices.

And even when such designs are at last capable of delivering profits across multi-class airliners, the maths of carrying such a large amount of fuel to ensure that the journey is ended carrying legal minimum diversionary fuel reserves will not change.  The money will continue to be in a service that stops somewhere on the way, and the question will remain whether connectivity at a Middle East hub will of its own right be commercially superior than the connections that can be made at an Asian airport, in Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur, or a totally rebuilt Jakarta hub.

Asia is more likely to build new mega hubs than Europe. The tyranny of distance will continue to weight upon Australian carriers in relation to Europe, but the strength of traffic to China and India and Vietnam after another two decades of economic growth might ease the pain.

Mr Hololei’s comments open up some fascinating insights into a somewhat different future for Asia-Europe aviation, which Australian carriers will need to game as best they can.

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