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How twin jets took over the world: The 2010s in aviation

Dec. 25, 2019
11 min read
How twin jets took over the world: The 2010s in aviation
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The decade that ends with this year has been full of technological advancements in aviation. From the debut of the Boeing 787, the first commercial jet made largely of composite materials, to the proliferation of smartphones, the 2010s have brought some major changes to the ways we travel by air.

None may have been as revolutionary as the birth of commercial jet flight in the 1950s or the arrival of double-decker jumbo jets in the 1960s, but they have made air travel more efficient, helping drive down its costs — and its prices — for everybody.

Reducing the cost of flying passengers and cargo from A to B has been a dominant theme of the decade. Look, for example, at one of the most amazing feats of today's commercial aviation: Flying nonstop halfway around the world from Singapore to New York.

The death (and rebirth) of the world's longest flight

These days, the longest scheduled flight in the world is Singapore Airlines' nonstop from Singapore to Newark and back, which covers around 9,500 miles, and in practice often goes above 10,000. Flights SQ21 and SQ22 have been around since 2004, but with a five-year hiatus between 2013 and 2018.

What happened during those five years? Simple economics.

The airplane that Sigapore Airlines used to start SIN - EWR flights was the Airbus A340-500, a longer-range, shortened version of the A340-600. With four engines, and the weight resulting from being a shortened version of a larger, heavier airplane, it burned a lot of jet fuel. Add to that a low passenger capacity — Singapore Airlines flew it with just 100 seats, all in business class — and you have a machine that did not make economic sense anymore as fuel prices climbed.

Between 2004 and 2013, the price of a gallon of jet fuel rose threefold. That spelled doom for the beautiful, but relatively inefficient, A340-500. Singapore Airlines sold the ones it owned back to Airbus, and closed the Newark route in 2013. The A340-500 survives in commercial service today only with Azerbaijian Airlines and charter operator HiFly, making for exactly three airplanes flying worldwide. (Not counting those used as VIP jets for a few very lucky customers, like the king of Thailand.)

An Airbus A340-500 of the Royal Thai Air Force over Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo by nuttapong via Getty Images)

But then a new airplane appeared that could do Singapore to Newark with just two engines. Airbus came up with the A350-900ULR, or "ultra long range" — a slightly modified version of its twin-engined A350-900. The world's longest flight was back on, and it has been operating since 2018.

That is an amazing testament to the power and reliability of today's jet engines: We can now fly for 19 hours straight on just two of them.

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Twins rule

The 2010s will be remembered by aviation historians as the decade when twin-engine long-haul aircraft finally supplanted three- and four-engined jets on long hauls. Sure, you can still fly on Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s and A380s, and they will be with us, in dwindling numbers, certainly until the 2030s. But those four-engined planes are a throwback to another age.

Twins can now do everything their bigger brethren can, and cheaper. They began crossing the Atlantic in the 1980s, when the Boeing 757 and 767 entered service, and have progressively taken over long-haul routes. With the arrival of the 777 in the mid-1990s, the writing was on the wall: Big twins were the future.

That's why the vast majority of your long-range flights is on twin jets these days: There's no real reason for the complexity and extra cost of four engines. Airlines like Emirates, whose unique traffic model can make full use of giant A380s, or Lufthansa and British Airways, with a legacy commitment to the 747, still fly large numbers of quad jets. But they're outliers.

Every U.S. airline, for example, operates its long-haul flights with twins. The last one to kill its 747s was Delta, in December 2017. And no airline in the Americas has bought the A380 - a commercial fiasco. The Airbus giant is already headed for an early demise.

New planes: From the 787 to regional jets

That twin-engine supremacy is largely due to two airplanes that debuted in this decade: the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350.

The 787 entered service in 2011 and, despite a troubled initial period when problems with its lithium batteries forced a worldwide grounding, has been a commercial success. Airlines on every continent have bought almost 1,500 of them, with about 900 already flying; there's a very good chance you've been on one. 787s serve many routes from the U.S. and fly in large numbers for American and United.

The first Boeing 787 about to be delivered to launch customer ANA at the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington, on September 25, 2011 (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

Airbus responded with the A350, its slightly larger big twin, which began commercial service in 2015 and has also sold widely. Delta is building its long-haul expansion around it; you can find the winner of the 2019 TPG Awards for best business class in the world, Qatar Airways' QSuite, aboard it.

This decade has also seen the arrival of a revolutionary new jet at the other end of the size spectrum, the Airbus A220, which seats up to 150 and is now flying in growing numbers for Delta.

The list of debuts also includes the refreshed versions of the Airbus A320 family and A330, with new engines and a "neo" suffix after the model name, for "new engine option." They're also commonly found around the U.S. - from A321neos plying the domestic skies with JetBlue to big A330neos crossing the Atlantic with Portugal's TAP.

Those Airbuses with more efficient engines are all part of an industrywide drive to reduce fuel burn and emissions. That's also what the Embraer E2 family of regional jets does; they aren't strictly new planes, but re-engined versions of tested workhorses, made to save airlines 10% to 20% on fuel costs over the previous generation.

The 2010s also saw the introduction of the only new Russian jet to enter service since the end of the USSR: the Sukhoi SSJ 100, which debuted in 2011. It holds the distinction of being the only Russian-made airplane flying into the U.S. — but, plagued by maintenance issues, it may not be around for much longer.

A Sukhoi Superjet 100 in Monterrey, Mexico, in August 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

The MAX debacle

Not all airplanes launched this decade have been a success. Alhough the Boeing 737 MAX has sold in the thousands, it has been grounded worldwide for almost a year now, and won't return to service until well into 2020. Boeing has even suspended its production, since it can't deliver the planes to customers that cannot fly them.

In an attempt to make the MAX fly like its predecessor 737s, reducing training costs for airlines, Boeing installed a system that countered nose-up movements by pushing the nose down automatically. That system, known as the MCAS, played a key role — according to the current state of investigations — in the two fatal accidents that caused the plane's grounding.

The rise of flight tracking

The 737 MAX disaster is a reminder that technological advances in aviation aren't always easy or seamless. But in the case of flight tracking and inflight Wi-Fi, technology has been an unquestioned boon.

Most passengers now carry smartphones, tablets and laptops that can connect to the Internet from airplanes. Major airlines that don't offer inflight Wi-Fi are rare these days. For all its shortcomings, inflight Internet has changed the way we travel by air. The hours between takeoff and landing, once a space outside everyday communication, can now be productive time. Or a time to post to social media, which also has changed the way airlines interact with their customers.

Flight tracking, once the domain of governments and militaries with sophisticated tools, is now thoroughly democratized. All you need is an app like Flightradar24 or FlightAware, and you too can track your flight or most others. That's not just for fun; the days of sitting at an empty gate wondering where the airplane taking you on your next flight may be are over.

A screen cap from Flightradar24 taken on December 22, 2019.

In the future, satellite-based advanced flight tracking will help make incidents like the disappearance of flight MH370 — the greatest mystery of the decade, and perhaps in the history of aviation — almost impossible.

But technology will still be vulnerable to nature.

The decade began with the spring 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in Iceland that spewed a plume of particles dangerous to jet engines, over an area so vast that the airspace over continental Europe was closed for days. That cost airlines $1.7 billion as flights had to be rerouted or cancelled.

The next decade: Project Sunrise?

Speaking of routes, the 2020s may bring another breakthrough in long-distance flying: scheduled nonstops between eastern Australia and Europe or New York. That Holy Grail of long hauls may finally be found in 2023, when Qantas could begin flying nonstop from Sydney and Melbourne to London and New York.

There's no airplane around today with the legs to make it almost 11,000 miles with a full load and without refueling, but Qantas says it's ready to order a special version of the Airbus A350 that would be able to cover the routes. The airline has made two trial flights to Sydney from London and New York with a Boeing 787-9, with only a few dozen people onboard. It's not certain yet that Project Sunrise, as Qantas calls the endeavor, will take off for real. We will know for sure next year, when the airline's board makes a decision.

What we do know will take off are the two new Chinese and Russian jets that will compete with Airbus and Boeing: the Comac C-919 and the Irkut MC-21. Both seat around 150, are already flying, and are expected to begin commercial service in 2021 or 2022. The dates are still unconfirmed, a reminder that China and Russia aren't quite ready yet to compete with the big Western planemakers.

IRKUTSK, RUSSIA - MAY 28, 2017: A new Russian-made Irkut MC-21-300 twinjet airliner performs its first test flight at the Irkutsk Aviation Plant airfield. MC-21 is a project of the short- and medium-range (~6,000 km - 3,700 miles) narrow-body jet airliner. Vladimir Baikalsky/TASS (Photo by Vladimir BaikalskyTASS via Getty Images)
The first flight of the Irkut MC-21-300, in Irkutsk, Russia, in 2017 (Photo by Vladimir Baikalsky/TASS via Getty Images)

Yet, just as the rise of the big Middle Eastern airlines marked the 2010s, the rise of Chinese aviation is likely to define air travel in the 2020s. China Southern Airlines, already the biggest carrier in Asia, has plans to become the biggest in the world in the course of the decade, taking the title from the United States. With a domestic market of 1.3 billion people and a growing international reach, it's a near-certainty that it will happen — and that the next version of this story, 10 years from now, will have a headline about China becoming a global power in air travel.

Featured image by Alberto Riva