Editor’s View: Has Covid given the low-cost long-haul dream new life?

Published: 29 October 2020 - 3 a.m.

I’ve often tried to imagine myself spending eight hours on a narrow-body aircraft and I have to admit that the prospect is not appealing. Even a short-haul flight on a budget airline operating a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 is enough to drive some people to social media to express their outrage of the conditions.

Naturally, low-cost airlines and OEMs would officially disagree. Our aircraft are light, roomy and meet the regulations, they say. But their notions of spaciousness seem to differ wildly from the consumer’s idea. I would argue that traditionally most people would be willing to spend extra on travelling on a point-to-point route operated by a wide-body that is more comfortable and avoids stop-overs.

But with new developments from OEMs and the coronavirus upending the entire aviation industry, low-cost long-haul routes are looking increasingly viable. And now they might well be less of a preposterous idea to the discerning consumer.

Canadian carrier Air Transat this week completed a record 7600km (4103nm) flight between Montreal and Athens using an Airbus A321LR. Unsurprisingly, Airbus hailed the news as a “concrete example of the aircraft's transatlantic capability, making [the A321LR] the unrivalled long-range route opener”. Often, we would scoff at sweeping statements made by manufacturers, branding them as marketing tosh. But on closer inspection, I feel Airbus may well have a valid point.

Firstly, let’s look at Air Transat’s two-class configuration A321LR from a passenger perspective. While the cabin offers passengers less room for stretching their legs than a wide-body, the Economy Class seats are – I think – adequately sized. They are 3.8cm (1.5in) wider than in the A310, which is hardly ground-breaking, but certainly noteworthy. Personally, an in-flight entertainment system with a 25.7 cm (10.1 in) screen – and a copy of Aviation Business, of course – would occupy me for a transatlantic journey. Air Transat’s so-called Club Class is a step up again and without compromising the jet’s capacity provides an affordable ‘VIP economy experience’.

While the A321LR’s cabin might not be as flash as an A350’s, it certainly does a job. And perhaps that’s enough for some passengers these days. No doubt in the aftermath of coronavirus and the economic decimation it has caused, consumers will be more inclined to opt for the cheaper options where travel is concerned. Vacation travel will take the longest to recover, many analysts predict, well after visiting friends and relatives and business. Perhaps VFR travellers – who regard air travel as a necessity – will be less bothered by the amount of legroom on their trip to see loved ones after months of separation.

Then there is the important consideration of airline costs. With airlines expected to burn through an additional $77 billion of cash this year amid the pandemic fallout, carriers need to be operating efficient jets. Four-engine aircraft are out of the question for a lot of airlines currently, hence the demise of the 747 and A380, and twin-engine wide-bodies are increasingly less attractive. They are simply too expensive to run when they cannot be filled to max capacity and with fuel prices set to increase next year as the economy improves, wide-bodies will remain costly to operate.

Demand for narrow-bodies like the A321LR is increasing. Airlines are looking for more cost-effective fleets in the wake of the pandemic and a versatile jet that can operate both short-haul and long-haul flights profitably is infinitely more attractive than the alternative. On the surface and in the current climate, it makes sense to send cost-effective planes on long-haul journeys.

Of course, the viability of low-cost long-haul flights may only last as long as the slump caused by the pandemic. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts a return to normal traffic by 2024 and consumer confidence is also likely to increase. Perhaps by then wide-bodies will be back on the airline shopping list but something tells me a seismic shift is taking place which will ensure cleaner, more efficient and smaller jets are here to stay.

In the short-term at least, it would appear that low-cost long-haul travel is a more attractive proposition than ever. While some airlines couldn’t make the concept work profitably in the past, Covid has shifted the whole aviation landscape. Perhaps the next few years are a good time for operators – who can afford it – to start re-experimenting with these new routes. Passengers may indeed revolt. Or perhaps spending eight hours on a narrow-body will become normalised. Maybe it’s another step in the march of aviation democratisation.

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