Forget the A380, Even Airbus’ A350-1000 May Be Too Big for Airlines

Sep 13, 2017

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The Airbus A380 can certainly be a great experience to fly, but as a commercial endeavor, it has not been a success, and now the program is on life support. Airbus hasn’t received a single order for the plane since April 2016 — which was negated by an Air France cancellation of two aircraft shortly afterward. Now, airlines are even starting to park their used A380s. If things don’t change soon, Airbus will have to reduce production of the giant aircraft to less than one per month.

But, at least Airbus has the A350… right? Well, kinda.

Last week, we learned that United had changed its Airbus A350-1000 orders to A350-900 orders, ditching the biggest Airbus plane short of the A380 for a smaller model. And on Wednesday, Cathay Pacific swapped some of its 1000 for the 900 too, in another indication of an industry trend that’s taking hold: Airlines don’t like really big planes anymore.

Not only are they shunning the A380 and Boeing 747-8, the largest and second-largest passenger planes around, which seat in general around 500 and 400 passengers respectively. They are also moving away from the A350-1000, which seats 350 typically, and aren’t rushing to order the 400-seat Boeing 777-9 either. And in place of those big jets, which make handsome profits when they are full but risk losing tons of money when they aren’t, airlines are gobbling up 250- to 300-seaters.

Hong Kong-based Cathay, known for its impeccable service but losing a lot of money lately, isn’t taking chances and is switching six A350-1000 orders to 900s, and deferring five deliveries by a year, saving the airline $288 million based on aircraft list prices.

The Cathay Pacific A350-1000 isn’t extinct quite yet. After this change, the airline still has 20 A350-1000s on order. With 16 A350-900s already in its fleet, the airline will now take delivery of another 10 of the smaller aircraft. The -900s in Cathay service are configured with 280 seats, 50 fewer than the -1000s will have.

CX-A350-Tour-business1
Inside Cathay’s A350 business class cabin.

These Cathay Pacific A350-900s can be seen on routes around the world, from Cathay’s hub in Hong Kong (HKG) to Vancouver (YVR), Tel Aviv (TLV), and soon San Francisco (SFO), Newark (EWR)Dublin (DUB), Copenhagen (CPH) and Brussels (BRU).

After a period when airline executives were fighting to show off having the biggest aircraft in the skies, it now seems that just Emirates’ President Tim Clark, who has bought as many A380s as everybody else in the world combined, and Portuguese wet lease operator Hi Fly, which is taking over used A380s from Singapore Airlines, are the only ones not afraid of buying new aircraft with more than 300 seats.

Instead, it now seems that airlines are salivating over the sweet spot of an Airbus A350-900 or a Boeing 787-9.

What seems to be dooming the larger A350-1000? While more fuel-efficient, its size is just too similar to the widespread Boeing 777-300ER for airlines like United and Cathay Pacific to justify operating both aircraft types, or to ditch the 777s for the Airbus. At this point, 777s are generally too new for airlines to be swapping an A350-1000 in already. With fuel prices remaining reasonable, there’s not that extra incentive to make the move.

Featured image by Marina Lystseva/ TASS via Getty Images

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