Long-range narrowbody aircraft are on course to become increasingly prominent over the next decade, with airlines preferring them to widebodies on some long-haul routes for a plethora of reasons. In this article we’ll examine this trend and what it means for onboard amenities.
Narrowbody aircraft have a long history of flying long-haul routes. The Boeing 707 recorded its first flight in 1957 and its most popular variant (the 707-320B) was capable of flying routes close to 10,000km in the 1960s. Narrowbodies were commonly used for transatlantic flights during this period. However, as the years rolled by and the demands of passengers grew, narrowbodies became increasingly rare on long-haul flights as they began to be supplanted by more spacious and better equipped widebody aircraft.
Narrowbody aircraft have continued to fly medium to long haul routes since the turn of the century (more prominently in the US domestic market), but not on any great scale. Until recently there had been no evidence of this becoming more common. In the last few years, however, the market has begun to shift towards the rebirth of the long-haul narrowbody – a trend which will only be accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are a number of reasons why airlines have a renewed interest in long-haul narrowbody flights. One major driver is the emergence of new narrowbody aircraft with increased efficiency and greater range such as the A220, B737 MAX (now returned to service), and the A321LR/XLR. In fact, the record for the furthest commercial route flown by an A321LR was recently broken by an Azores Airlines flight from California to the Azores (7,874km). While the A321XLR is not set to enter service until 2023, close to 500 aircraft have already been ordered. Furthermore, in June this year United Airlines confirmed they had ordered 200 new B737-MAX aircraft; demonstrating the confidence placed in the aircraft since its return.
Cost savings and efficiency gains
The other major factor driving the trend towards long-haul narrowbody usage is COVID. The pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to the aviation industry. The widebody market remains in peril due to international border closures and extreme friction associated with any non-domestic travel. Despite the gradual lifting of travel restrictions over the summer, people are not yet returning to air travel in the numbers many in the industry had hoped for.
As a result, 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. Indeed, long-range narrowbodies also offer an opportunity for some airlines to expand their routes further.
Passengers expect a ‘widebody’ experience
So, what does an increase in using narrowbody aircraft to fly long-haul routes mean for suppliers of cabin technology/amenities?
The evidence so far suggests a new hybrid market is opening up, which will offer passengers a “widebody-lite” onboard environment. As well as using the space in the cabin more efficiently, we expect increased use of in-seat power, IFC, IFE and digitally-savvy cabin service. Furthermore, we will see multi-class cabins become increasingly common onboard narrowbody aircraft flying long-haul routes. This will open up an abundance of opportunities to vendors offering premium cabin configurations such as lie-flat seating, as well as state of the art seatback IFE offerings.
Passengers will not expect their in-flight experience to be downgraded as a result of this trend. From a passenger’s perspective, the size of the aircraft is largely irrelevant. While they may be happy to accept a very basic service on a 2-hour flight, no one wants to sit for 7 hours with nothing to do. As such, it’s up to airlines to design a cabin which can closely match the wide-body experience passengers are used to on long-haul flights.
Long-range narrowbody – a distinct IFEC segment?
While this trend will only gather pace, it is already evident now. Valour Consultancy estimates that around 30% of standard narrowbody aircraft currently offer IFC to passengers, whereas in excess of 60% of widebodies provide connectivity to travellers.
The long-range narrowbody market sits perfectly in the middle of this, at 45% (see below). In fact, a number of major airlines such as Turkish Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Air Canada have connected some or all of their long-range narrowbodies. This is illustrative of why aircraft technology vendors should view the long-range narrowbody market as distinct.
A similar distinction can be made with regards to cabins being fitted with seatback IFE. Currently, just over 16% of standard narrowbody aircraft are fitted with seatback IFE systems. This is in stark contrast to the wide-body market, where seatback IFE is fitted in the vast majority of cases. As things stand, more than a quarter of long-range narrow-body aircraft offer seatback IFE to passengers. Readers can expect this to rise in the coming years. At the very least, long-range narrowbodies will increasingly be expected to offer some form of IFE to entertain and engage passengers, whether that be seatback, wireless or both.
A positive vision for the future
The widebody market is expected to take longer to recover from the pandemic, and 2021 continues to be challenging for airframer manufacturers. Indeed, Airbus had to wait until June before it received its first widebody order of the year. In the meantime, the growing long-range narrow-body market offers a more positive vision of the future. Moreover, with hundreds of orders placed on the MAX and the A321LR/XLR, this hybrid market provides cabin technology vendors an opportunity to drive forward into the coming years.