Air France and Airbus gave a strong hint this week that a further stretch of the A220-300 might become the long-awaited replacement of the A320 family after 2025.
“We have told Airbus for a long time that we would be very interested in a stretched A220 as an A320 replacement, but discussions are preliminary so far,” said Ben Smith, CEO of the Air France/KLM group, in Paris.
Airbus CCO Christian Scherer confirmed this had been a long-standing plan in talking to Airlineratings.com on the same occasion: “It’s not a question of if, but when a stretched A220 will become the successor of our narrowbody A320 family, these plans have existed since Bombardier started initial designs for the CSeries” – the aircraft’s original branding before Airbus took over the program in 2017.
Scherer estimates the stretch might happen in a time frame of about five years. While the A220-300 can transport up to 160 passengers in a dense layout, a stretched version would add six rows of seats, extending capacity to close to 200 seats in a one-class layout or about 180 in a two-class configuration.
As the A220 is producing 20 percent less CO2 emissions and a 34 percent reduced noise footprint at 10 percent lower operating costs, the maths are compelling.
While such future topics were debated Mr. Smith was literally standing in between the past and the future of the Air France fleet. On Wednesday he was unveiling a major milestone -the A220 – in Air France’s fleet renewal in a huge hangar built only a little over a decade ago at Paris CDG for the giant A380.
As the Airbus A220-300, aptly christened “Le Bourget”, to join the fleet of the French flag carrier, just outside the huge view-through hangar doors, the last of Air France’s A380s stood on the tarmac forlornly and devoid of any livery, landing gear and engines covered in foil, waiting for its disposal, despite the fact its first flight had only been in 2010.
Mr Smith, a passionate avgeek himself, felt vindicated and cherished the scene. Even before the pandemic he was the most vocal opponent of the A380 and had been taking the blame. “We were fortunate we made the decision to phase out the A380s before the crisis, as we would have had to invest €30m to 40m per aircraft, times ten,” he told Airlineratings during the ceremony this week.
“Most other airlines that flew the A380 realized with the beginning of the crisis this was the most inefficient aircraft to fly.” The unit costs of the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 are equivalent to the A380, the airline found out after both efficient twins joined the long haul fleet in past years. “Normally when you have a much larger aircraft, the unit costs go down. I think it was the right decision. We were the first carrier to make the decision to remove all our A380s.”
That visionary decision is the same as his order for the A220, which is the biggest order Air France has ever placed, for 60 Airbus A220-300s plus 30 options plus another 30 purchase rights.
The A220 is the only new narrow-body designed from scratch in the last decade. Air France’s A220 commitment is not only the biggest order in aircraft numbers but also the fastest one in being executed.
The first aircraft arrived from Montréal in Paris on Tuesday and the last one of 60 is going to be delivered by 2025, with up to 15 per year coming in the next few years.
Mr Smith points to other big airlines with huge A220 orders, from his SkyTeam partner Delta Airlines to JetBlue and his former employer Air Canada. “The A220 is starting to be well understood. As much as the phase-out of the A380 was an economic decision, the order of the A220 was as well.”
Air France has some huge fleet decision-making before it, and one can sense that Ben Smith enjoys the challenge, as he passionately talks about the options. “The A220 has a range of up to four and a half hours, so we will ultimately use it on every one of our medium-haul routes,” stresses the Air France/KLM CEO. Air France might also use them to Moscow or North Africa in time. A220 Services start on October 31st with flights to Berlin, followed by Barcelona, Madrid, Milan-Linate, and Venice.
“No other airline than Air France has operated all aircraft types Airbus ever built, currently we have a total of 136 Airbus aircraft in our fleet,” says Mr. Smith. The A220-300, seating 148 passengers in the Air France version, is introduced to replace all existing 18 Airbus A318s with Air France the biggest remaining operator, and 33 A319s.
For some specific airports however the A318/A319 will be indispensable for some time to come, like Florence in Italy with a very short runway, as Air France pilots point out.
For passengers the replacement of the older Airbus types is very good news: The new cabin with 2+3 seating supplied by Collins Aerospace and installed at a 30” pitch, is a far cry from the 29” pitch non-reclining seats on the older aircraft.
At 1.88m tall I can certainly attest to the much higher comfort level.
Wifi supplied by GoGo with free messaging is an added plus as well, as are two USB ports and a tablet holder at every seat.