Airline Fleet Planning

Along with choosing the routes and destinations it will serve, each airline must decide which aircraft it will operate and how many it needs. Whether the airline is a low-cost carrier (LCC) operating a single model fleet; a large network carrier operating several different aircraft types; or a large group with diverse operators, fleet planning is a crucial process.

Fleet planning has four core components: airlines must decide which aircraft suit the network; when they are needed; how many are required; and whether they are needed for replacement or for growth.

Almost universally, LCCs operate a fleet consisting of one model or family of aircraft, often the A320 or 737. The choice delivers operational simplicity and economies of scale vital to budget airlines. “As a new airline that launched in 2007, our fleet is now [comprised of a] single-type – all Airbus A320-family aircraft,” a Virgin America spokesperson told AFM, citing a number of sources. “We’ve been very pleased with the low operating costs, cabin comfort and carbon-efficient design of our all-new Airbus fleet and believe it will continue to fuel our growth and success in the North American market.

Our single fleet type is a core component of our business model. It reduces costs, streamlines maintenance and otherwise fits within our low-cost carrier business model. Every one of our pilots and in-flight team mates are trained to fly every aircraft in our fleet. There are tremendous benefits to keeping to a single fleet type, from hiring and training team mates to operations, maintenance, spare parts and managing the guest experience. It also allows us to deliver a consistent onboard experience – with all of our Airbus A320-family aircraft [A319s and A320s] undergoing Virgin America’s signature modifications [such as] mood lighting, custom seating, touch-screen entertainment platforms.”

But while LCCs usually start out operating a single model fleet, some older budget carriers are moving away from this as a result of mergers or competition with traditional network carriers on longer-haul routes.

Airlines’ perspective

Few other airlines take fleet planning as seriously as the Lufthansa Group. Lufthansa has been known for decades

for its technical standards and fleet organisation – a sizeable feat as it consists of 11 airline subsidiaries (not including BMI) and owns sizeable shareholdings in another three carriers.

Lufthansa had to decide whether to conduct its fleet planning at group level, or by individual airline. It chose to combine input from both levels, says Nico Buchholz, EVP of fleet for Lufthansa Group. “The fleet planning is done centrally, at group level, but the planning at the requirement level comes from the [individual] airline.” He explains: “The basic requirement comes from the airline because it is closer to its customer requirement and to its own market.”

For example, its subsidiary, Swiss International Air Lines, was operating A330-200s ordered before it became part of Lufthansa Group. However, it was decided that the best way to leverage SWISS’ membership to the group was to switch to the larger A330-300. The A330-300 was suitable for coping with the carrier’s traffic growth on transatlantic routes and Lufthansa and subsidiary, Brussels Airlines, already operated the aircraft.

International Airlines Group (IAG), parent of British Airways and Iberia and fellow airline group, says the ability to integrate its existing fleet is crucial but it notes a variety of other important factors. These include network fit, fuel efficiency, improved environmental performance and value for money.

According to Virgin America, a “young and growing airline,” the carrier must balance aircraft efficiency, fleet flexibility and simplicity, up-front and operating costs.

Acquisition cost is important to Lufthansa, “because it happens up-front,” says Buchholz. But he adds that operating costs are of more concern because they are “for the rest of the asset’s life.” As such, the onus will be on such things as fuel burn, carbon and noise emissions.

Lufthansa believes an environmental view of aircraft performance is increasingly important to economics – particularly in Europe, which is sensitive to carbon emissions and noise. An aircraft’s environmental performance not only affects emissions surcharges, but also aircraft utilisation. Many airports have noise curfews for aircraft that do not meet specified noise performance levels and these curfews can hinder operations.

Another factor in Lufthansa’s fleet planning is maintenance-related costs. Direct maintenance costs are clearly important, but so too is downtime during shop visits. “We want an aircraft [to offer] longer intervals between shop visits. The less unscheduled maintenance, the better,” says Buchholz. Although Lufthansa gains savings by performing most maintenance in-house or at its MRO joint ventures, the group does not want aircraft that spends much of its time on the ground.

Parallel processes

Lufthansa runs its network development and fleet planning processes in parallel. The group uses economic analyses and market development assumptions to plan for network growth and plot capacity requirements. This process is continuous and looks years ahead. When the group places an order, it usually allows about a year of lead-time; however smaller orders can be incorporated over a much shorter period – as little as four months.

Analysis for these short-term decisions is performed well in advance, when Lufthansa makes its initial assessment of the aircraft and its overall requirement. Combining long-term fleet planning with near-term aircraft buying “is not a contradiction”, says Buchholz. “We always prefer to under-order the aircraft we need. We’d rather buy one too few aircraft than too many. That’s a very costly thing to do, as some airlines have found out.”

Virgin America describes a similar process. The San Francisco-based carrier says that its route-development planning and fleet decision-making “are closely tied.” However, while “typically, most fleet planning is done several years out, one of the advantages of being smaller is that you can be a bit more flexible within those constraints based on market opportunities.”

The five-year-old carrier is still in its early stages of fleet growth. It currently has 46 aircraft and plans to raise this to 52 by the end of the year. By 2019, it aims to operate over 100 aircraft though it will retain flexibility in its plan, which will allow it to adapt to the market and its needs.

Contingencies and the virtues of ownership

When developing a long-term fleet plan for a specific aircraft size, Lufthansa always maintains a back-up fleet plan to ensure it has enough capacity if deliveries of the new type are delayed. This has happened twice in recent times: deliveries of its A380s and 747-400 Intercontinentals incurred considerable delays. However, Buchholz says that not being able to take the new aircraft on the dates originally promised did not hurt Lufthansa’s operational plans because it was able to keep flying aircraft planned for retirement until the new aircraft were delivered.

This strategy has one major prerequisite: the airline must have financial control of its aircraft, rather than short-term operating leases. Many airlines, including Virgin America, feel that taking a portfolio approach to lease start dates, termination dates and extension options when negotiating operating leases can provide significant flexibility and allow appropriate reaction to market fluctuations.

But Lufthansa looks at things differently. Some of its subsidiaries – such as Swiss, Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines – hold some aircraft on operating leases. The ability to return an aircraft gives an airline the opportunity to modernise its fleet with a newer aircraft type or upgraded model.

However, Lufthansa as an airline believes owning its aircraft outright provides it with the greatest fleet flexibility. Lufthansa can retain existing aircraft if replacements are delayed and it notes that purchasing and owning confers strong financial discipline. “I know it’s a very onerous approach, but it ensures we don’t overstep our limits,” says Buchholz.

It costs Lufthansa nothing in operating-costs to park an aircraft in order that it can reduce capacity during a market downturn. “If we park an aircraft, there is no cash cost – [though] we would still have depreciation, so it’s not nice for the balance sheet,” Buchholz notes. The same cannot be said for parking an aircraft that is on operating lease.

The Lufthansa Group operates most aircraft types. However, with the exception of Lufthansa itself, most of it subsidiary airlines operate only one or two types. Buchholz says that additional economies of scale do not apply beyond a certain fleet size, which is much smaller for widebodies than single-aisle aircraft.

It was this that pushed Norwegian Air Shuttle (NAS) to order both the 737 MAX and the A320 neo, allowing it to obtain maximum negotiating leverage when it wants to order the next generation of single-aisle jets.

Lufthansa has not ordered either the A350 XWB or the 787. Buchholz says there are two reasons for this. “Lufthansa has a modern fleet and an owned fleet, so we’re not being pushed by lease terminations or having old aircraft,” he says. This is part of the “comfort zone” the group designs into its fleet-planning process. Buchholz adds: “We have been working extremely closely with the manufacturers on all their new products and we have our own risk assessment [process] regarding when to order. That risk assessment may also have played a role.” Other carriers may be wishing they had been as careful.

Courtesy: Airline Fleet Management


Thriving in Aviation without Global Alliances

Courtesy: Brett Snyder*

Over the last decade, more and more airlines have drifted into one of the three global alliances: Star Alliance,oneworld, and SkyTeam. You might think that the alliances have become crucial to airline survival. In fact, though, a few airlines have successfully bucked the alliance trend and instead thrived by working across alliances with multiple partners.

Only a handful of airlines can make this type of strategy work, and it requires a specific type of airline. But before discussing that, it’s helpful to know why airlines join alliances in the first place.

How alliances work

There’s no question that it’s expensive to join an alliance. Alliances have a base level of standards that are required for any airline to join, and there is usually some expensive tech work to connect all the dots. For the airlines that have joined alliances (and stayed there), the costs end up being worth the jump in revenue.

When an airline joins an alliance, the frequent fliers of partner airlines can instantly earn miles when flying on the new member airline. Not only that, but they can earn elite status qualifying miles, and that’s a big deal for building loyalty. The inevitable codeshares that follow help to flow passengers between all the networks in the airline system and that results in a big bump in terms of traffic.

Star Alliance member US Airways (LCC), for example, has said that its European operation wouldn’t be able to be nearly as large as it is without its alliance partners LufthansaSwissAustrian, etc., feeding passengers into the US Airways network.

How some airlines thrive without them

For the flip side, look at Hawaiian Air, for example. Nearly every U.S. airline flies to Hawai’i, but none of them fly between the islands. Would it make sense for Hawaiian to partner with a single alliance in order to increase connections? No. Hawaiian can take traffic from airlines in all the alliances (and non-alliance airlines) and fill its inter-island flights.

Being in an alliance wouldn’t increase traffic. It’s already getting the traffic from all the airlines, so an alliance would only increase costs. Closer cooperation wouldn’t really spark any additional passengers because there is no real competition for those partnerships in the islands right now. So Hawaiian can sit where it is and enjoy its place.

Another airline with this type of arrangement is Alaska Airlines(ALK). In the Pacific Northwest, Alaska has the hearts and minds of nearly every local resident. It’s a very strong brand with a tremendously popular frequent flier program. And because of that, it has a lot of airlines knocking at its door.

In fact, it has close cooperation with archrivals Delta (DAL) andAmerican (AMR). Both airlines use Alaska to extend their reach into the Pacific Northwest and they also use Alaska for Mexico flying. Delta has built international operations in Seattle with the expectation that it can use Alaska to fill those flights. Likewise, American counts on Alaska to help fill flights in LA. Alaska’s ability to feed passengers into major airlines up and down the west coast is tremendous.

So would Alaska benefit from joining an alliance? Not much. It already has reciprocal frequent flier agreements (including elite qualifying miles) with those airlines, and it has one-off partnerships with other airlines that it can help feed in its home base. The airline also partners with Air FranceAir PacificBritish AirwaysCathay PacificIcelandairKLMKoreanLAN, and Qantas. Its reach extends beyond just one alliance.

JetBlue’s international connections

Another airline that has decided to follow this strategy is JetBlue. Sitting on its perch in New York, JetBlue realized that it could partner with all sorts of airlines that fly into JFK in order to help provide connecting options throughout the U.S. It’s most recent partners are Virgin Atlantic and LAN but it also works with Aer Lingus, American, EmiratesLufthansaSouth African, and more are on the way.

South African is a great example of why this works. As a member of the Star Alliance, it could easily send connections via its Star Alliance partners, but there aren’t many connecting options at JFK. Sure, South African can connect people over Washington/Dulles on to United, but having this partner at JFK also helps it fill its New York flights better. It also gives JetBlue loyalists an airline preference when flying to South Africa. That can only help South African.

So why couldn’t JetBlue, Alaska, or Hawaiian join an alliance but then still have these one-off partnerships like South African? They could, but the point is that they don’t need to. As mentioned, joining an alliance is very expensive, and if these airlines can make it work without joining an alliance, then that’s a better way to go. Not many airlines can pull it off, but those with very strong niches in desirable places alongside strong brands can and do make it work.