EXCLUSIVE | Single-aisle aircraft were once the exclusive domain of domestic hops and short-range flights. But little by little, these high-powered jets are opening the skies between cities. What once took a large plane – or more likely for less populous cities, a detour via somewhere else – can now be done in one flight, on a plane with one aisle.

We’re already seeing single-aisle jets spread their wings onto medium-haul routes. For example, Philippine Airlines operates direct Brisbane-Manila flights using its latest-generation Airbus A321neo planes. A smaller aircraft like the A321neo ultimately means fewer seats to sell and much lower operating costs than flying a larger plane half-empty. Single-aisle jets create opportunity by linking up new city pairs with a direct flight – reducing the need to connect in between.

But Airbus is only just getting started. There’s a new aircraft waiting in the wings, projected to enter passenger service later this year. That’s the Airbus A321XLR. For many flyers, it may look like an ordinary A321. Yet it’s a plane that can operate flights of up to 11 hours non-stop. It’ll allow more travellers to get from where they are to where they need to be without changing flights along the way.

Herein lies the conundrum. While the prospects may be great for some airlines, network carriers like Emirates are all about ferrying connecting travellers via a hub. Will aircraft like the A321XLR threaten mega hubs like Dubai in the years to come?

At the recent IATA AGM in Dubai, I put the question to Sir Tim Clark – President of Emirates – along with IATA Director General Willie Walsh. Prior to joining IATA, Walsh was CEO of International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent company of carriers such as British Airways and Iberia.

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Hubs are here to stay, even as single-aisle planes fly further

‘The value of a hub is absolutely incredible, and you can see what it’s done to transform Dubai,’ Walsh says boldly. ‘You cannot recreate that with new-technology, single-aisle aircraft.’

‘The hubs that you see around the world are critical to economies around the world and will continue to be. There is a role for these longer-range, single-aisle aircraft. But the economics are quite challenging once you get, I would argue, probably beyond 6/6.5 hours.’

Clark – in charge of an airline that exclusively flies twin-aisle planes – agrees. ‘If you’re talking about 11 hours in a single-aisle aircraft, you’ve probably got a capacity payload restriction … as much as 50%. So is that going to be economical to do that? Is it going to be sustainable that you would fly multiple city pairs over ultra long range with a 50% passenger seat factor?’

‘If you want to go from Zanzibar to Glasgow, it probably makes more sense to pop them all together into a single hub.’ For example, ‘a superhub … on a hub and spoke basis, as we do in Dubai. It makes far more environmental sense than flying single-aisles over medium to long-range operations with the capacity not there. Or rather, the demand not there.’

Sir Tim Clark / Emirates not threatened by single-aisle aircraft
Sir Tim Clark doesn’t see narrowbodies as a threat to Emirates’ business model. [Photo courtesy Natalia Mroz/IATA]

Both leaders agree that single-aisle aircraft have their place in the global aviation landscape. Clark acknowledges their prevalence across Europe, North America and South America, along with Africa. ‘But I don’t really see how the economics of single-aisle over medium to long or even ultra-long-range missions is agreeable.’

From a comfort factor, many frequent travellers prefer to fly aboard twin-aisle planes. After all, which plane would you book from the east coast to Perth if given the option? Exactly.

Emirates has a new hub on the way

Clark’s comments come as Emirates is preparing for an eventual move to Al Maktoum International Airport, also known as Dubai World Central (airport code DWC). What’s currently a more basic airfield at DWC will be transformed to house five runways and over 400 aircraft gates, serving as Emirates’ future hub.

‘I can remember making a speech in London in 2011,’ Walsh begins reflecting. ‘I predicted that Dubai International Airport (DXB) would overtake Heathrow as the number one international airport in the world within four years, which is what it did.’ An upgraded DWC airport would very likely take the reins again as the world’s busiest.

Willie Walsh on single-aisle aircraft versus hubs
Along with being the former CEO of IAG, Walsh was also previously the CEO of British Airways. [Photo by Chris Chamberlin for Point Hacks]

Clark continues. ‘I honestly believe that the future of airlines operating out of mega hubs such as Dubai – the one that we’re going to build in the next 10 years,’ underscores the strength of the aviation hub business model. In particular, when compared to any threat from single-aisle aircraft.

‘I completely agree with Tim on this issue,’ Walsh continues. ‘I predict that the growth we see in the major hubs around the world will continue at pace. Regardless of efficiency … single-aisle aircraft just can’t replicate (that).’

Also read: American Airlines previews new Airbus A321XLR cabin for LAX-JFK flights

Featured image – depicting an Airbus A321XLR cabin mock-up displayed by Airbus in Hamburg – by Chris Chamberlin for Point Hacks. Chris Chamberlin attended the IATA AGM in Dubai as a guest of IATA and Emirates.

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Will long-range, single-aisle jets overtake aviation megahubs? Tim Clark & Willie Walsh say no was last modified: June 28th, 2024 by Chris Chamberlin