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Small planes, long hauls

It was always the holy grail of air travel: those long flights over the ocean to faraway destinations. Now they can be flown by a new, smaller generation of planes. So will passengers bite? MSNBC’s Jon Bonné reports.
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It was always the holy grail of air travel: those long flights over the ocean to faraway destinations. So it was clearly a strange happening when Aloha Airlines started taking West Coasters to Hawaii on Boeing 737s. A domestic airliner taking on a long-haul job? Such is the new reality.

That ability has largely been created by the development of two aircraft: Boeing’s newer 737 models, notably the 737-700; and Airbus’ A319, a longer-range offshoot of its popular A320. Both can fly over 4,000 miles with some 130 passengers aboard. (The Boeing Business Jet, or BBJ — a modified version of the 737-700 — can travel well over 6,000 miles.)

That has allowed U.S. carriers to easily cross the continent using a type of aircraft — with a far smaller passenger load — than was once necessary for a transcontinental flight. The smaller number of passengers means it is easier to fill a plane and thus offer both new routes between smaller cities and more flights per day. Alaska Airlines, for example, operates regular 737 flights between Seattle and Boston. Internationally, Copa Airlines runs 737s from Panama City to Los Angeles and Santiago, Chile.

But the real innovation has come with a new generation of aircraft engines that perform reliably on long-haul flights — which is the key to using smaller jets on those flights. The FAA weighs such things very practically: If an airplane engine fails while in flight over most of the United States, the pilots are within a couple hundred miles of an airport for an emergency landing. If that happens while they’re flying over water — between the West Coast and Hawaii, or the East Coast and Europe — they may be over 1,000 miles from a safe landing. With three or four engines, as was standard on older long-haul planes like the 747, even a multiple engine failure would still allow safe flight. But with newer models like the 767 and 777 that had only two engines, the FAA developed certification for extended twin-engine operations (ETOPS): Aircraft and engines that were maintained according to certain stringent standards could be used for overwater flights, several hours from any airport.

With both the new 737s and the A319 certified for ETOPS, the door is open for them to fly routes once reserved for widebody jets.

“What airlines are really trying to do is simplify their fleets,” says Randy Baseler, Boeing’s vice president of marketing for commercial airplanes. “If you can get a fairly common fleet that has lots of flexibility, they really like that.”

The concept of a narrowbody, single-aisle plane on a trans-Atlantic route is nothing new — the 707 used to have just six seats across. Even twin-engine narrowbodys are well-tried; American, for example, frequently used 757s on those routes. But the new, smaller jets present an alluring combination for airlines: Fewer passengers needed to fill planes on routes that are thousands of miles, with the flexibility of flying direct to smaller cities and secondary airports.

In the trans-Atlantic market, that impact could be revolutionary. While that sort of travel is bunched around major hubs right now — say, New York’s JFK to London’s Heathrow — direct flights might one day be available from Baltimore to Berlin or Philadelphia to Brussels. (US Airways actually flew that route with a larger plane but gave it up because they couldn’t book enough passengers.)

Direct to Hawaii
On the West Coast, these types of flights are already a daily reality. For the past three years, Aloha Airlines has been flying 737-700s direct from Oakland, Calif., to Kahului, Maui, and Honolulu to Vancouver. The smaller planes have given them the flexibility to serve smaller markets on both sides of the water. Aloha was the first to use the 180-minute ETOPS certification for the new 737s, which permits them to fly up to three hours from an airport and makes possible the six-hour flights over water. Other South Pacific airlines have since started using it for inter-island flights.

Indeed, Aloha rebuilt its strategy around the long-range service. While they continue to fly between Hawaii’s islands and operate out to the South Pacific, most of their traffic now comes from their West Coast offerings. While major carriers have been slow to take advantage of the extended 737 operations, Aloha saw an opportunity. The 3,000-employee carrier tried a modified Southwest strategy: it targeted smaller airports — using Burbank rather than Los Angeles — and marketed to passengers who might be more willing to look for alternatives to the major carriers.

The smaller jets have also gotten a tryout across the Atlantic, though not for the average passenger. Two corporations, DaimlerChrysler and Procter & Gamble, regularly fly business-jet versions of the A319 across the Atlantic. And last year, Lufthansa partnered with executive jet operator Privatair to revive its cancelled route between Newark, N.J., and Dusseldorf in an all business-class flight. The 48-passenger flights use the BBJ for the 3,700 mile route.

In both cases, the passenger load is well below the 130 it’s possible to fit on a jet of that size, but it’s a proof those models can routinely cover the long haul across the ocean.

For Lufthansa, which recently added Newark-Munich and Chicago-Dusseldorf business flights, the smaller jet was a way to recapture business from executives who had paid a premium for nonstop service.

“We lost premium passengers to competitors because if you have to connect, then you might have a choice: Do I connect in Paris, in Frankfurt, in London?” says Thomas Winkelmann, Lufthansa’s vice president for the Americas. “Those who pay more than others have to get more than others.”

East across the ocean
Even with the technology, no airline has yet bitten a small, economy-class hop across the Atlantic. Major carriers are mostly focused on cutting costs from existing flights, and while low-fare carriers are growing the long-haul portion of their business — such as JetBlue’s new service from New York to San Diego — their focus is domestic. But murmurs within the industry are starting to bubble up that the new aircraft will give one daring airline a new, untapped niche market.

“We think that scale is going to tip soon,” says Blair Pomeroy, director of global airline strategy for Accenture. “We wouldn’t be surprised if this is happening, in reality, within two years.”

But who? Bets right now are against Southwest, which would have to make major changes to its well-established business model. JetBlue is certainly a possible contender, though its current fleet is centered around the shorter-haul A320 and it just placed a new order for regional, 100-passenger Embraer jets — a sign its focus is getting more local, not international. (It could potentially convert orders for new A320s to A319s.) And Pomeroy suggests that Delta might find a way to branch its low-fare offshoot Song into the international market.

The innovator might also come from the other side of the Atlantic. Low-fare entrants such as Ryanair and Hapag-Lloyd Express already fly 737s and use or have ordered next-generation models. EasyJet, perhaps the biggest of the European low-fare carriers, not only has a fleet capable of the distance but recently ordered 100 A319s. The London-based carrier, however, insists its farthest destination will be Athens — not anywhere in America.

“Will it be EasyJet? No,” says Toby Nicol, EasyJet’s head of corporate affairs. “Read my lips.”

Finding a niche
If there is skittishness, it may be due to the difficulties — some obvious, some not — of expanding a domestic service overseas. For a start, there is the need to secure gate space at a foreign airport and hire ground staff to operate it. Beyond that, ETOPS flights require aircraft to be kept on a stringent maintenance routine, well beyond what is required for operations over land. The same 737 that might be flown between Baltimore and the West Coast would need a whole different set of maintenance to head overseas, and its pilots would need extra training.

“They’d have to segregate those airplanes from the rest and they’d also have to segregate those pilots,” says Aaron Gellman. “It’s not beyond the realm of possibility but it does require commitments that are somewhat different than flying the 319s or 700s domestically.”

One major roadblock, though, has largely been wiped away. Open-skies regulations both in the United States and Europe now allow far more flexibility for international carriers. It would still be difficult for a new airline to get gate space along major routes — at JFK or Heathrow — but with smaller, secondary airports clamoring for new business, foreign carriers would likely be able to open routes not covered by the international airlines.

Another problem has, ironically, largely been addressed by cutbacks among major airlines: the customer experience. Just 10 years ago, passengers would have quickly spurned the idea of a six-hour flight on a jet as small as a 737. But cost-cutting in domestic service has made those a reality. Carriers have already proven that service essentials for an international flight — food, restrooms and entertainment — can be handled on the smaller jets. And customers for airlines like JetBlue have shown they’re willing to pay for food and accept far more basic amenities even on a long flight.

None of which is to say international flights are about to resemble domestic flights with a Customs officer at the end. Big, packed jets are a profitable stable between major international city pairs for the airlines, and business travel continues to drive high-end service between major international hubs. As Winkelmann puts it, a Lufthansa 747 headed for San Francisco is carrying passengers from 37 countries.

But Aloha and the others have proven the smaller jets work on these distances. What’s more, charter and tour operators who operate seasonal businesses are always looking for flexible ways to carry their customers. And with Boeing getting ready to put big money behind its planned 7E7 jetliner, a superefficient model that would carry 200 to 250 passengers over 7,000 miles, more and more of the aerospace industry seems willing to bet on smaller aircraft as a key to the industry’s future.

“I think the airplane’s size has become less of an issue than the personal space you’re getting,” Baseler says. “It doesn’t matter whether its wrapped around a really big airplane or wrapped around a smaller airplane.”