Why Some Airlines Fly the A350 Long-Haul, and Others on Domestic Routes

Jul 16, 2019

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The Airbus A350 XWB has established a strong presence in the commercial market ever since its first delivery in 2015. Today, airlines operate the aircraft across the globe — including the soon-to-be delivered A350s for both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

The A350 XWB (extra wide body) is a family of aircraft comprised of only two variants: the A350-900 and the longer A350-1000. Both variants share 95% common systems, part numbers and the same type rating, meaning A350-900 pilots can also fly the -1000. Where the two are slightly different, however, is that the -1000 is 23ft longer, has a higher maximum takeoff weight, an extra set of tires on the main landing gear and a slightly more powerful engine in terms of thrust.

The majority of routes operated by the A359 since it entered service can be classified as long-haul. The jet has replaced a range of older aircraft models in a bid for carriers to improve efficiency while offering passengers an improved passenger experience.

But while this long-haul aircraft was created with the intention to frequently operate flights of anything between nine to 15 hours, some airlines are using it on much shorter runs. One of the shortest A350-operated routes is the 182-mile flight from Singapore (SIN) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL) by Singapore Airlines.

This could be surprising for a European-based passenger to discover, given that European routes are most frequently operated by Airbus or Boeing single-aisle jets such as the A320 or 737. But in South East Asia, the different yields and stronger load factors on some routes means it not only makes sense to deploy a wide-body jet on a two-hour flight, it’s also a financially sound decision.

Last month, Japan Airlines took delivery of its first-ever Airbus jet, an A350-900 XWB modified for domestic operations. It’s the first A350-900 that will fly on a strictly domestic route network. Airbus modified the aircraft to have a reduced maximum takeoff weight of 217 metric tons in order to prepare the jet for high-cycle operations. (A cycle is one takeoff and one landing, and more cycles mean more stress on the airframe, so a lighter weight helps.)

While these routes will be around just two hours in flight time, the aircraft has three cabin classes: first, business and economy. “It’s especially important for us to meet the premium demand on our domestic routes. This is typical of Japan”, the CEO of Japan Airlines told TPG in Toulouse, France.

From 2023, the airline anticipates it will fly the A350-1000 on long-haul routes. Once those long-haul operations begin, Japan Airlines will be the first airline to treat the -900 as a short-haul jet and the -1000 as a long-haul jet, despite the aircraft being so similar.

Singapore Airlines flies the A350 both on the longest nonstop flight in the world, Singapore to Newark, and on short hops like that flight to Kuala Lumpur. To make a profit on an ultra-long-haul flight, the metrics are often different from the average short-haul flight. On the former flights, an occupied seat in business class can make the airline up to four times as one in economy.

With this in mind, Singapore Airlines has a premium-only offering on the A350-900 ULR jets it uses on nonstops to Newark, comprised of only premium economy and business class.

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

But how can a plane that flies 20-hour nonstops with all-premium seating also make money on flights 10 times shorter?

Finnair is a good example. It uses the A350’s big seating and cargo capacity, combined with low emissions and fuel burn, within Europe as well as to Asia.

“We can definitely see the efficiency in our bottom-line figures, which is great for both the environment and for business,” Finnair’s COO Jaakko Schildt told TPG. “It also benefits us with new cargo potential — hence why we fly the aircraft between London and Helsinki, a big cargo route for us”.

Schildt revealed that utilization of each A350 jet is around 16.5 hours per day, but this sometimes exceeds 17 hours per day depending on winds, airspace routings and other external factors. And the higher the utilization — how many hours the plane spends in the air making money, instead of on the ground costing money — the better it is for airlines. 17 hours is on the high side.

Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

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