Paris, September 24th – At a time when airlines are progressively retiring their larger aircraft, arguably more difficult to fill, the industry is shifting focus towards smaller airplanes. Last year, Air France announced they had chosen the Airbus A220 as the replacement solution for modernising part of their ageing short and medium-haul fleet. Recently, Air Baltic also declared it was eyeing an A220-only fleet in a near future. These announcements come as a confirmation of the growing interest for the former Bombardier CSeries, today known as the Airbus A220.
Strategic positioning, reception among airlines, passenger experience: Flight-Report dives into the specificities of the aircraft that may become the short and medium-haul aircraft of the coming decade.
Flexibility and performance: a response to new industry dynamics
Entered into service in 2016, and with a capacity of 100 to 160 passengers, the Airbus A220 is a new-generation narrow-body aircraft which lies between a regional jet and a more traditional medium-haul aircraft.
The A220 is currently commercialised in 2 versions: the A220-100, the earliest model with a capacity of 100 to 135 seats in its highest density configuration, and the A220-300, the extended version whose capacity lies between 120 and 160 seats. In its -100 version, the A220 appears as a competitor for the Airbus A318 as well as the Embraer E190-E2 (re-engined version of the Embraer E190), while the -300 version is rather competing against the Airbus A319, the Boeing 737-700 NG and the Embraer E195-E2.
Nothing revolutionary pops out from the positioning of the A220, except maybe the fact that its reduced seating capacity compared to the A320neo makes it easier to fill and therefore more flexible to operate on niche destinations as well. An A320neo filled at 65% of its capacity is an A220 loaded at 80%. At a time when load factors are evolving rather chaotically in the aftermath of the COVID19 outbreak, the flexibility of the A220 could become a true selling point.
With a greater focus on environmental concerns in the aviation industry over the past months, the A220 stands out thanks to its performance. Reaching an average fuel consumption of around 2.4L/100km per passenger, the A220 is as fuel efficient as the A320neo, but with a lower seating capacity.
Compared with the A319neo of same capacity, the A220-300 allows a gain of 20% in fuel consumption. The numbers are the same when comparing the A220-100 to Embraer‘s E-Jet family. Furthermore, while being more fuel-efficient, the A220 outperforms all the other similarly sized aircraft by its range (+18% compared to the E195-E2), allowing airlines to operate the aircraft on longer routes.
Although Airbus has become the sole owner of the aircraft since the beginning of this year, let us remind that the Canadian manufacturer Bombardier was at the origin of the conception of the formerly called Bombardier CSeries.
Satisfaction from the airlines, despite a difficult start
Currently operated by 7 airline companies around the world and across 4 continents, the A220 had encountered a mixed reception among airlines when it was initially launched. However, the consequences from the global health crisis have not altered the recent revival of interest in the aircraft, and has perhaps highlighted the advantages from operating such a versatile airplane.
In Europe, Swiss and Air Baltic (respective launch customers of the -100 and -300 versions of the aircraft) have progressively placed the A220 as the cornerstone of their medium-haul fleet. The aircraft now serves almost all the destinations in their European network.
In North America, the adoption of the aircraft is much slower than in Europe. Delta and Air Canada are currently positioning the aircraft exclusively on domestic routes while using a larger spectrum of the aircraft range capabilities: today, Air Canada operates the longest regular service route worldwide on board an Airbus A220 between Montreal and Calgary (around 4h30 flight time).
In Africa and in Asia, in spite of the recent deliveries to Egyptair, the sight of an A220 is still quite scarce. In South America, the cradle of the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer, the A220 has not operated any commercial flight and no order from any airline of the region has been recorded yet.
Although the whole industry has been hammered by the recent crisis, some positive signals support the future of the A220. First, it is interesting to note that the A220 has convinced both LCCs (such as Air Baltic and JetBlue) and legacy careers (Swiss and Air France for example). Furthermore, airlines set to launch their operations in the upcoming months or years have chosen the A220 to be the spearhead of their fleet: Breeze Airways, a new US airline expected to take off in 2021, has ordered 70 A220s, and Odyssey Airlines in the UK also intends to begin operations in 2021 flying the A220.
Last but not least, following the fall in air traffic figures in the aftermath of the COVID19 outbreak, we have been noticing a faster return-to-service of A220s relative to other medium-haul aircraft in the A220’s customers’ fleets.
Passenger experience: a significant increase in comfort
Even more than re-engined aircraft, a whole new airplane often gives the opportunity to the manufacturers to explore new ideas and solutions in the cabin, likely to increase the comfort for the passengers. The A220 seems to be no exception.
The “cabin” ratings given by the contributors at Flight-Report show a clear gain in comfort in the A220 compared to other aircraft in the same segment. For Swiss, the average “cabin” rating of the A220 reaches 8.66/10 versus 8.06/10 for the entire Swiss medium-haul fleet. At Air Baltic, the gap is even more pronounced: 8.02 vs. 7.04/10.
More generally, the A220 ends up outperforming all its peers in terms of cabin comfort with an overall “cabin” average rating of 8.6/10, which is 1.2 point higher than the 737-700 which ends last in this benchmark. The relatively new cabins certainly help boosting these grades, but it is the characteristics of the A220 itself that have retained our contributors’ attentions.
Our contributors have often noticed the gain in personal space for the passenger: with a maximum configuration of 5 seats per row, the A220 is the narrow-body aircraft that offers the best cabin width / number of seats ratio. While the 2-2 configuration on Embraer‘s E-Jets allow every passenger to be seated either at the window or at the aisle, the 3-2 configuration on the A220 allows 80% of the passengers (average pre-Covid load factor for medium-haul flights) not to be seated at a middle seat – versus 60% for the 3-3 configuration on Boeing 737s and Airbus A320 family aircraft.
Another advantage of the A220 lies in its large windows, often reported as a strong point by Flight-Report contributors. Slightly smaller in surface than the Embraer E-Jets‘ windows, the windows of the Airbus A220 offer a larger range of vision for the passengers than those of the B737 and Airbus A320 family aircraft. These large windows also bring a better luminosity within the cabin during daytime.
Also, the overhead screen at every row, sold as an option to customer airlines on the A220, although relatively small, is widely appreciated by our contributors.
More efficient, more flexible, more comfortable: the Airbus A220 seems to meet all the expectations, both on the airlines’ and the passengers’ points of view.
However, will this be enough for it to become the narrow-body aircraft of tomorrow? On the one side, the arrival of the A220 in Airbus’ portfolio has sealed the fate of the A319neo, while the once rumoured launch of another extended version, the A220-500, could similarly end up cannibalising the sales of the A320neo. But the reluctancy of the airlines to buy new aircraft in difficult times, together with the effort to rationalise their fleets, could push the A220 program to revise its ambitions to conquer the short and medium-haul market.
Despite strong evidence of its advantages, the fate of the A220 programme hence depends on the pace of recovery of the industry.
Average of cabin ratings given by Flight-Report contributors for the different aircraft mentioned in the infographic.
6,721 flight reports have been taken into account to build these statistics.
A220 network map reflecting effective air traffic as of August 2020.
Airbus orders announced as of end of August 2020.
Traffic data extracted from Flightradar24.
Sources: Manufacturers and airlines’ official websites, Leeham News
Credits cover picture: © Airbus 2018 – Photograph by S. Ramadier