Monday, 1 July 2013

Boeing 737 MAX versus Airbus 320 neo

The 737 and A320 have formed the backbone of almost all successful low cost carriers (LCC’s) capacity that has also the main source of profitability in the airline industry.  Airbus and Boeing have a lot at stake to make the next generation of this airline mainstay aircraft as relevant as the previous.  With both manufacturers booking large orders for the competing aircraft, to me it asks the question, which one is best?
Here I will identify one very important difference between these two competing aircraft types.

Aircraft are like cars in many ways.  Each have their good points and their bad points, one is better at one job than another and vice versa.  I think the BBC Top Gear show episode where they compared the relative fuel performance between a Toyota Prius and a BMW M3 sums up the situation here also.  If you are unfamiliar with that episode they “tested” the fuel economy between the Prius and the BMW M3, and the BMW came out on top.  Under the test, they drove the Prius as fast as they could around the track and the M3 only had to keep up.  A lot of greenies didn’t like the test, but it did make the point that fuel economy depends on how you use it.  Every car has it’s optimal use parameters for best fuel economy.  In the Prius versus the BMW it was about “how you drive”, and when it comes to aircraft it’s “how you fly”.  The “how you fly” is made up of the route structure, average stage length and payload requirements.
When selecting between any aircraft types you need to look at a number of key criteria, for example:
  • Financing cost, purchase or lease
  • Fuel Efficiency
  • Maintenance intervals
  • Maintenance costs per cycle and block hour
  • Crew Training
  • Seat capacity required
  • Route network/schedule structure
  • Range requirements
Now for the 737 MAX versus the A320 neo.
With neither the new 320 or 737 currently flying, this is purely a desk study comparison for now.
The 737 MAX will incorporate a number of aerodynamic changes from the current 737 NG, including a number of design characteristics learnt from the 787.  The specifics on the expected operating characteristics of the new 737 Max will be updated sometime during 2013.  The A320 neo (simply an abbreviation for New Engine Option) by comparison is not as a significant change as with the 737. The first 737 MAX is expected to be available during 2017 and the A320 neo two years earlier during 2015.
Aircraft economics are very important for maintaining a competitive cost base.  The new generation engines are offering greater efficiencies and reduced noise, but given new generation engines are available to both Boeing and Airbus, the design of the airframe and flight systems is the major differentiating factor.  Aerodynamic efficiency and aircraft weight per seat are critical factors in the economic calculation.
In a business where lowest cost wins (whether an LCC or full service airline), then having the most efficient aircraft type for the route network is a critical component.  In this analysis there is one key factor that makes a significant difference – WEIGHT.
The base weight of the aircraft or the Operating Empty Weight (OEW) is a good reference point for comparative analysis between the current Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737.  The reason why weight is so important is that a large component of cost is determined by weight, namely fuel, landing fees and navigation.  More weight also means more thrust, bigger engines and weight and also additional maintenance requirements.
The Airbus 320 series has a wider cabin and wider seats over the 737 which is nice to have, but the question is do travellers pay any extra for this premium?  To date the consensus is that extracting a premium on this basis is not possible.  As these aircraft are used on shorter haul markets the extra half inch is probably not enough of a difference for most.
Weight Per Seat Analysis
Analysis of operating empty weight per seat between the 737 and A320 series aircraft

This analysis shows that on a per seat basis the 320 series are 6% to 11% heavier per seat than the competing 737 variant.
The A320 neo is actually a very good description for what this aircraft is, a current A320 with new generation engines.  The new winglets are available before the new engine option so from Airbus this is essentially  a very minimal change.
The A320 neo will effectively close the gap to the current 737NG with the new engine efficiencies by 2015, but by 2017 Boeing will also have a new engine along with the new 737 MAX with a number of airframe improvements.  The performance gap in 2017 could be wider than it is today.

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