The last time I saw both my grandparents alive and together, I was 12 years old. I took an American Airlines 767 from Phoenix to Chicago. Today, the 767 is rare at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Typically, it's a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 that handles runs from here to Chicago.
This is weirdly counterintuitive. The Phoenix population has only grown. Airline tickets are cheap. Booking flights is ridiculously easy (sorry, travel agents, but that's the truth). This all adds up to more people in the air.
Yet there's a never-ending downsizing of aircraft. And I'm not just talking about the retirement of the 747 (most of which are 20-year-old 400 series planes) or the flameout of the even-bigger-than-jumbo Airbus A380. I mean at the workaday domestic flight role, shuttling between large domestic cities. What once was a job for an airliner that could hold close to 300 people is now the purview of smaller airliners that hold closer to 175 (this completely depends on how the airline configures its aircraft, of course). By far the latest and coolest airliner is Bombardier's C Series, a high-tech, efficient little plane – 150 passengers or less, depending on the model – that is getting rave reviews from operators, pilots and passengers alike.
I've always seen the bigger airliners as a smart solution for the entire system. Passengers can get on and off of twin-aisle planes far more quickly. And fewer planes with more people means far fewer planes sitting on a taxiway waiting for their turn to take off. So what gives?
Economics plays into it, for sure. In the US, airlines have to essentially pay by the pound for their landing fees. Smaller airliners are also a smaller capital outlay, require smaller crew and use less fuel. I am sure the airlines puzzled this all out and somehow found that more-but-smaller airliners are better than fewer-but-bigger planes. These guys crunch numbers like crazy to eke more profit out of their actions – like how much fuel they can save by removing a pair of olives from first-class meals.
Despite that, airlines are notorious for filing bankruptcy. Another consolidation always seems imminent. So I'm not 100-percent confident saying that airline bean counters have everything figured out – and that includes the downgauging into smaller airliners. I also admit that I'm completely atypical from most airline passengers. When I book, aircraft type is a huge factor for me. I avoid planes I don't like and will pay extra for the ones I prefer (the 737, Airbus A330 and MD-80 rank at the bottom of my ladder).
And then comes this Inc. story about Qantas considering bigger planes on shorter routes. This is a solution I’d like to see US airlines ask.Â
The question here doesn't really seem to be whether airlines can sell enough seats to make this work. Nearly every flight I've been on in the last decade has started with the announcement "We have a completely full flight today," followed by a request to gate-check your bags.
This made me think of an excerpt from something I wrote for the now-defunct Yahoo Voices awhile back. It's more-relevant than ever.
Affordable airfare spiked the demand. But rather than larger planes to meet it, the industry went toward a glut of smaller aircraft.
"You’re tempted to think ... Instead of flying a 200-seat 767 from New York to Los Angeles, make it a 747 instead, with 450 seats," wrote Patrick Smith, commercial pilot and author of Ask the Pilot. "But that’s not how it happened."
Southwest Airlines is one example of the "many small planes" phenomenon. It has nearly 560 aircraft, all narrow-body. It has six daily flights from Phoenix to Los Angeles – some with as little as 40 minutes between them.
Southwest bases its business model on the 737. The airline aims for one aircraft family to standardize maintenance and training requirements – all of which saves money.
"Also, carriers have switched many flights to smaller regional jets, which don’t fly as fast as bigger planes and can also force planes behind them to slow down," Scott McCartney wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
Regional jets are even smaller than Southwest's 737s or the A320-series planes low-cost carrier Jet Blue prefers.
McCartney's sources said planes not only spend longer in the air, but an average of 10 minutes more on the ground than they did in 1977. The conclusion? The taxiways are more crowded.
The crowded skies are also an added burden for air traffic controllers. Smith and many other writers say the nation's air traffic-control system are already antiquated and insufficient for current needs.
Economics lecturer Lynne Kiesling points out that airlines have no incentive to choose bigger planes – airports charge for landing slots by weight. Instead, the fees should be based on time slot: higher-demand time slot, higher landing fee. That would create incentives to land as many people as possible in that slot.
Kiesling hints at but doesn't fully explore aircraft separation. Some aircraft generate more wake turbulence, and they need to be separated from other aircraft. The Boeing 757 is notorious for its wake turbulence, despite being a medium-sized jet. Wide-body jets also generate quite a bit. That means regional jets need to be insulated from them, creating delays as they wait for the larger aircraft to move a safe distance away.
So what's the solution?
There's no agreement about that. Too many airlines are too entrenched in using smaller aircraft. Some, like Southwest, depend on it for short-term success. But there has to be a point at which the flying population will grow too large for the system to work. That may be a long time in the future, but it's something airlines should be considering right now.
I have not flown a widebody aircraft in the US since the trips to Chicago I mentioned earlier. My wife flew in a 747 from Minneapolis to Phoenix, but that was a replacement aircraft for several different flights. On the flip side, I've flown international flights in a single-aisle 757.
My gut tells me the landing fees are the sticking point that will keep airlines from adjusting to what the population needs. Airline apologists are quick to say the bean counters have it all figured out and this really is the best way. Then why the bankruptcies, consolidations and mergers? They don't have it figured out beyond the next few quarters. And then what happens?
Speaking of Patrick Smith, we must’ve been reading each other’s minds: He just published a similar story with more of a focus on the logistics. It’s worth reading, as are most of his posts – yes, even the ones about Husker Du.Â
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