Singapore Airlines The A340 vs 777 saga continues

Date:         10 Jul 99 02:33:27 
From:         jmweber@goodnet.com (James Matthew Weber)
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It appears from an article in this week's Aviation Week that Airbus
may be heading for some serious challenges. Many of you are no doubt
aware that Singapore Airlines has exercised an option for 10
777-200ER's, and Boeing is taking all of SQ A340-300's including 2
that have not even been delivered essentially in trade. According to
Aviation Week, there are several issues at work.

SQ apparently now has serious concerns about their A340-500's. Most
of you are equally aware that SQ ordered the A340-500's for a specific
mission, LAX-SIN in the Northern Hemisphere winter.

It's been reported that the aircraft is currently 6.5 metric tonnes
overweight, which puts it about 400nm short of the range requirement.
The problem may well be worse than that. The A340-500 has a new
engine, the RR Trent 500, and industry experience is that new engines
rarely make fuel guarantees 'out of the box'.

If Airbus cannot make the aircraft fly the mission it was bought for
by the time of delivery, I suspect SQ will refuse to accept the
aircraft. To say this would be damaging to Airbus is perhaps the
understatement of the year!

While Airbus has called the result evidence of a price war, SQ
management says it can better characterized as a business class war...

The decision to replace the A340-300's on the routes to Europe is far
more interesting. The profits in the airline business today are
largely driven by how well you can sell the premium cabins, especially
the business class cabin.  An analysis based upon BA's recent decision
to expand this cabin at the expense of economy suggests that the
revenue from the business class cabin can in fact be higher than First
and Economy combined!

SQ customers are apparently not all that happy with the A340 cabin.
They want more headroom, and more space (cabin width). While Airbus
likes to advertise there is no center seat (and there isn't one), it
turns out to be largely an academic exercise in the Business class
cabin. The middle seat in a 777 or 747 is only filled if the cabin is
more than 80% full. Not a very common event.

According to the article, SQ customers are willing to take their
chances with center seat to get the additional cabin width and
headroom the 777 and 747 offer (and remember SQ operates all 3 types,
so the issue isn't the service, or the seats themselves, it is
obviously something about the aircraft itself)..

According to SQ management, the premium customers are also keenly
interested in getting to the destination as quickly as possible, and
are complaining about the A340's cruise speed. Whether it is true, or
SQ is saying it to turn up the heat on Airbus is hard to say. It is
certainly true that the trip to Europe in an A340 from Singapore will
take longer than it will in a 777 or a 747...

The run to Europe from Singapore in an A340 is nearly an hour longer
than it is in a 747, or a 777.  It is extra travel time, and it
complicates connections within Europe.

Airbus Aircraft are traditionally not 'high flyers'. This is also
causing SQ a certain amount of pain. Flights to Europe generally
depart in the late afternoon and early evening, and are at or very
near MGTOW.  The trip goes out of over the Bay of Bengal, which often
has nasty weather (thunderstorms) in the early evening. Very bluntly,
at high weights, the 777 and the 747's can fly a lot higher, giving
the crew more choices about how to avoid weather (and provide a better
ride for the passengers).

The other operational issue is the routes from SE Asia go over India
on the way to Europe or the Middle East. A300/A310's are very popular
regional aircraft often transiting India on the way to or from the
Middle East or destinations on the sub continent, couple that with the
normal long haul traffic out of SE Asia , and it tends to make the
altitudes where these aircraft live very congested, so unless you are
lucky, or can fly above FL350, (which is very hard to do in an Airbus
at realistic operating weight), you may well get shoved down at a very
unattractive altitude, like FL260.

FL260 does ugly things to fuel burn on a route that doesn't have a lot
of margin to begin with, and may force a technical landing. The
ability of the 777 and 747 to reach the higher altitudes at high
weights is very useful, and may make the difference between being
forced to make a technical landing in Europe with high costs, and
substantial delays, or an ontime arrival.

I think SQ has just sent the folks at Airbus a very blunt wake up
call. I think Airbus engineers and the RR engine people are going to
be putting in a lot of overtime in the next year or two. The need to
assign engineering resources to the A340-500/600 program that were
planned for the A3XX probably means a further delay in the A3XX
launch.

On the other hand, if the reports about the A340-500 are true, and
Airbus doesn't get them fixed before the first delivery, I am not sure
how many customers will be interested in signing up for A3XX... I
freely admit I have not been convinced of the merits of the A3XX
program from the start.....