The Dubai Airshow 2021 was the first major air show since the pandemic emerged and the event served as a symbolic milestone of the aviation industry’s COVID recovery. This article examines the key takeaways from the show and what it can tell us about the likely trajectory of the industry over the next twelve months.
Most of the immediate reaction from the show centred around the differing performances of the two major airframers. Airbus had a strong showing in Dubai, clocking in a total of 408 orders across the four days. The largest came from Indigo Partners (on behalf of Wizz Air, Frontier, Volaris, and JetSMART) and Air Lease Corporation (ALC). Boeing received 101 orders at the show, the majority of which came from a deal with Akasa Air, a new Indian low-cost carrier.
That being said, Boeing can take solace in the fact that it did perform pretty strongly across 2021 as a whole. The American airframer recorded 909 gross new aircraft orders in 2021, a huge improvement on the previous couple of years. The company recorded 246 gross orders in 2019 and 184 gross orders in 2020. In terms of net orders (which account for cancellations/conversions), Boeing and Airbus recorded a similar number of orders at 535 and 505, respectively.
Dubai also provided further evidence that the dual factors of COVID and the emergence of longer-range aircraft is driving a surge in orders for aircraft such as the A321XLR, B737MAX, and the A220. Airlines are anticipating reduced demand on long-haul routes for the coming years and so are now looking to long-range narrowbody aircraft as a more cost-effective means of maintaining long-haul routes. This sub-segment of the market has, along with cargo/freighter aircraft, been a lifeline to airframers since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Indeed, there were significant orders for long-range narrowbody aircraft across the four days. Indigo Partners ordered a total of 29 A321XLRs – 27 of which will go to Wizz Air with the other 2 heading to JetSMART. ALC ordered 25 A220s and 20 A321XLRs; and new Nigerian airline, Ibom Air, ordered 10 A220s. Additionally, there were also 74 orders for the B737MAX, the majority of which came from Akasa Air, which has ordered 72 – a salvation for Boeing at an otherwise disappointing show.
While the show brought encouraging news for narrowbody orders, it underlined the continuing troubles faced by the widebody market. Demand for twin-aisle aircraft is expected to take longer to recover from the pandemic, with 2021 being a very challenging year for airframers. Indeed, Airbus had to wait until June before it received its first widebody order of the year. The Dubai Air Show did not break with this trend, with widebodies accounting for just 2% of total orders. ALC was responsible for the largest widebody order at the show – four A330neos.
While widebody orders were scarce, the show did offer some longer-term positive news for this market segment, with Boeing providing a public debut for the B777X. The new aircraft type has already racked up 320 orders in total (although these were all pre-COVID) from a range of major airlines including: Lufthansa, Etihad Airways, Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Singapore Airlines to name a few. The 777X was warmly received by industry spectators, with deliveries due to commence in 2024.
To summarise, the Dubai Airshow 2021 was a very instructive sample of the trends which we expect to dominate aircraft orders for the next couple of years:
- The recovery of the industry as a whole will rely predominantly on the narrowbody market. Not just for new aircraft orders, but for the wider value chain.
- The widebody market is going to recover much more slowly and we will not see it return to anything like full strength until the second half of the decade.
- The long-range narrow-body market is a segment in its own right and will play a pivotal role in how airlines react to the post-COVID landscape.
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