By Bjorn Fehrm
May 6, 2015, c. Leeham Co. Qatar Airways, as the first operator of the Airbus A350, now has four months of experience of the new twin aisle aircraft. As we have described in Bjorn’s Corner two weeks ago, the introduction has gone well, without major incidents.
The first destination was Doha-Frankfurt, to be followed by Doha-Singapore on June 1. Both destinations are mid-range, with flying times of six to eight hours. These can be seen as introductory rotations, close to Qatar’s base should replacement aircraft or maintenance actions be needed.
With the first period in the bag, Qatar now feels confident enough to announce how they will take the A350 to its true job types. Here the relevant parts of what Qatar Airways announced Tuesday this week:
“Increasing passenger demand to America’s largest city and financial centre, New York, has prompted Qatar Airways to add a second daily service to the city from 1st March 2016. Qatar Airways has served the city daily since the initial route launch in 2007. The second daily service to New York’s JFK will be operated by the Airbus A350 XWB aircraft providing passengers an opportunity to experience both the Boeing B777 and the A350 aircraft types on the route.
“ From 16th March, 2016, the airline will launch daily flights to Boston, the capital and largest city of Massachusetts, and will operate its latest flagship A350 XWB in a two-class configuration with 36 Business Class seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, featuring an 80” fully flat bed and 17” HD in-flight entertainment screen.”
This is more challenging work for an A350 and we will therefore take a first look into what Qatar can expect in terms of overall aircraft performance on such destinations come spring next year.
Qatar’s A350 induction strategy
Qatar introduced the A350 on the Doha-Frankfurt rotation 15 January. With a distance of 2,500nm and flying times of six to eight hours, this is not stretching the legs of an aircraft like A350. This is rather a task for one of Qatar’s A330-300s.
But as an induction mission, it carries several perks. It has the outstation close to home for Qatar and is even closer to Airbus’ Hamburg spares headquarters. It is also smack on Airbus’ Frankfurt regional spares warehouse where we can expect most A350 parts to be stocked initially. Should any problem not be fixed by Airbus’ Frankfurt people, Airbus experts on any interior problem are just down the road in Hamburg or a flight away in Toulouse for anything else.
Should a replacement aircraft be needed, Qatar’s home base Doha is within half a day’s reach and they have many aircraft on European missions that could be rotated in to cover for any A350 problems.
The up-and-coming Singapore rotation is similar (it is about one and a half hour longer), therefore not the 12 to 14 hour flights for which the A350 was designed.
Long haul with A350
This week’s announcement from Qatar now changes that. The announced Doha-New York-JFK is 6,000nm great circle distance which, when flying west means air distances of up to 7,000nm equivalent range due to winds. This is close to the practical range of the Qatar’s A350. This announcement thereby means the honeymoon for A350 is over and it’s time for work.
Both of the announced destinations are true long-haul rotations with flying times of 14 hours going from Doha to New York and 12 hours on the return leg. The Boston destination is 20 minutes shorter in both directions. This is then a good opportunity to look at what performance Qatar can expect from the A350, both in terms of additional revenue from cargo at different load factors and what fuel burn differences they will see compared to the Boeing 777-300ER that flies the New York rotation today.
When flying Doha-JFK, the aircraft will have to fly into persistent westerly winds. One can see on the planned flight time that the average covered air distance is then close to 7,000nm. At such distances and a realistic planning for alternates, there would be around five tonnes left for cargo at 80% load factor when passenger and bags have been loaded. Going home from JFK to Doha, this could increase to 15 tonnes of cargo as now the winds are in the back. Here the aircraft would be cargo space limited to about 10 tonnes as there would be 25 LD3 positions left after the LD3s with bags are loaded and one count with around 400kg cargo per LD3 equivalent as average density.
The 777-300ER, which is the present aircraft on the sector, takes 42 business passengers in 78 inch lie-flat seats in 2-2-2 and 293 economy seats in nine abreast. This shall be compared to A350’s 36 business in 1-2-1 lie-flat reverse herringbone and 247 economy in nine abreast. The A350 is thus 15% smaller in terms of capacity but our model says it would burn around 35% less fuel when both aircraft fly with 80% load factors and 10 tonnes of cargo. On a per transported passenger basis, this means the A350 will save Qatar around 15% on the fuel bill for its second New York rotation come next year, a nice incentive to deploy the A350 as a complement to the existing 777-300ER.
The A350 has benefited from an Airbus which has settled into one homogeneous company from a loose gathering of national European industries. It is the first new civil aircraft program that has been developed at the back of a troubled A380 project, which showed all the weaknesses of the earlier “Airbus Industries” consortium.
The first test period for this important program for Airbus has now passed and things look good. Qatar as the first operator now starts putting the aircraft on the jobs it was designed for. It will be interesting to follow, not only to see the aircraft’s reliability on these more demanding missions but also because now the A350 is used as intended and its true performance compared to the workhorses of today will be revealed.