Funmi Fabunmi in this piece examines the switch from wide-body aircraft to smaller ones by Nigerian airlines as the crisis in the aviation industry persists
Narrow-body aircraft such as Embraer 195-E2, Embraer 147, ATR aircraft series, Bombardier Q400 among other smaller aircraft sizes are set to dominate Nigerian airspace as the aviation industry set up plans for recovery over the next decade. Local airlines have started altering their fleets and operating models for a squeezed travel market.
As the aviation industry tries to pull through the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector, which saw passenger traffic hit an all-time low between March and July 2020, the global and national economic challenges and incessant scarcity of aviation fuel have further exacerbated woes of domestic airline operators.
While some carriers resorted to layoffs, operations’ down-scaling and restructuring of their business, major passenger airlines explored a new service – cargo transportation on passenger aircraft as a survival means.
In a bid to overcome the economic headwinds, Nigerian airlines have started re-strategising, abandoning expensive big aircraft for narrow-body ones, which are more economical as they push to cut costs.
Oliver Wyman’s Global Fleet MRO Forecast 2021-2031 said that by 2031, the global aviation fleet would be smaller than once projected because of the impact of COVID-19, and a decade of smaller fleets would mean constrained growth and consolidation.
To underscore the new business idea, Nigeria’s biggest airline by fleet size, Air Peace, took delivery of a new Brazilian Embraer 195-E2 aircraft on February 5, 2021, making it the first African carrier to acquire the latest aircraft.
The airline had ordered a total of 30 Embraer planes. Air Peace is only second in terms of fleet size of Embraer planes to Lufthansa globally, which ordered 35.
With the E195-E2 tagged profit hunter aircraft Air Peace can achieve its ambition of connecting the entire African continent while feeding long-haul flights from its Lagos hub.
United Nigeria Airlines started its domestic flight operations in 2021 with the narrow-body Embaer 147 because of the fuel efficiency of the airplane.
An aviation expert who spoke on condition of anonymity said that narrow-body and regional aircraft may become more important to domestic airlines’ immediate recoveries.
He disclosed that many of them were walking a tightrope, adding that “Ibom Air has a great future with the type of aircraft they operate. It is a smart airline”.
“While it uses the right size of aeroplanes, virtually all other carriers with B737 classics and few Next Generation aircraft could say mayday to them.
“The longest distance in Nigeria by air is one and a half hours. In places like Europe, one-and-a-half hours distances are operated by trains, which is more economical. But when you want to fly to such a distance in Europe, you use a turboprop aircraft. A CRJ900 aircraft is the same minute as a B737 in terms of speed and fuel consumption which is about 30 to 40 per cent less than bigger aeroplanes.”
According to the source, leases on bigger and fuel-guzzling aeroplanes were no longer fashionable.
“The lease rental on these aircraft is expensive and the reason the lease is expensive is that many Nigerians have violated the Cape Town Convention agreement which Nigeria is a signatory by refusing to release aeroplanes to their owners through litigations that tend to paint Nigeria as a risky country to do business with,” he explained.
Chief Executive Officer of Ropeways Limited and a former Managing Director of Virgin Nigeria, Captain Dapo Olumide, said the airlines’ problems were self-inflicted with the use of the wrong type of aircraft for domestic operations.
He predicted that by the end of this year, there was a likelihood that fewer airlines would still be in operation because of their overhead and other associated costs.
Aviation analyst, Wole Shadare, stated that “Nigerian airlines are beginning to dump big-bodied aircraft for smaller-bodied ones in a bid to save more on fuel. This is so because small-bodied planes consume less fuel. And unlike big-bodied planes, which are more expensive to operate, they are economical in maintenance. ValueJet, Arik Air, Airpeace and others are now moving towards small-bodied aircraft. This gives more room for them in the hangar too.”
The Chief Executive Officer of ValueJet, Capt. Majekodunmi while speaking on the shift to narrow-bodied aircraft said, “Fuel efficiency is one of the key reasons; comfort and technology are behind it. The CRJ aircraft technology is friendly to the pilots. Most airlines fly the common B737. They all thought they were doing the right thing when the aviation gas Jet A1 was selling for as low as N100 per litre compared to today’s N800 per litre.
“Secondly, the flight trips around Nigeria are all in the region of a one-hour flight. The regional flights are in the region of three hours. With the CRJ’s excellent fuel consumption of five hours plus endurance with full tanks with the capability of 90 passengers, that’s the magic aircraft for this region. At the time they were using it, fuel was not as expensive as it is now. Steel and fuel were cheap in America at the time. American cars were known to be very big and poor on fuel. Today, the American market is all after fuel-efficient European cars. The Americans now know that it is either they make their cars more aerodynamic or their customers will settle for European cars. We have studied a situation whereby we maintain good safety, make some money and most importantly, let the passengers enjoy the quality of a streamlined aircraft; that was the birth of the CRJ 900 for ValueJet.
The seat numbers are not that much, but 90 seats are just enough to serve over popular routes like Abuja, Port-Harcourt, Asaba, and Benin. Jos will also be joining by the first week of February 2023. Jos people have long awaited our service.”
In 2021, Nigeria’s Ibom Air ordered 10 narrow-body A220 jets from Airbus. This was made known at Airbus’ fourth deal of the Dubai Air Show.
The Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Udom Emmanuel, said the agreement was signed to boost an enduring business strategic relationship between the Akwa Ibom State government, Ibom Air and Airbus.
Udom said, “I was just talking to the top management of Airbus that they should see our partnership in a different light. That we are trying to build something, which we have planted its seeds in the ground, but that we will also water and tomorrow we are going to have the forest.”
The deal, based on the plane maker’s pre-pandemic price list, was valued at about $810m, though large aircraft purchases were typically deeply discounted.
“What we are doing today with these additional aircraft, we hope to expand our dominance of the aviation industry in Nigeria and commence operations to the rest of Africa,” the Akwa Ibom governor said at a joint news conference with the Chief Executive Officer of Ibom Air, Mfom Udom, and Christian Scherer, Airbus’s chief commercial officer.
The switch from big aircraft to narrow-body ones has made Airbus remain the world’s leading plane maker for the fourth successive year.
“I’m happy to report we have enjoyed four consecutive years of leadership,” said Airbus Sales Chief, Christian Scherer, in a media call. “I look forward to making it five.”
However, in the more lucrative widebody airplane category, the two jet makers were even in production, and Boeing won more orders. That was because Airbus suffered several big order cancellations, including 63 mid-size A330neos by AirAsiaX and 19 large A350s lost in a dispute with Qatar.
Setting aside those two losses and ignoring the widebody freighter market that Boeing dominates, Scherer said that Airbus won eight out of the 13 widebody passenger jet sales campaigns against Boeing in 2022. December brought Boeing’s total jet deliveries in 2022 to 480, an average of 40 jets per month and up 40 per cent on the 340 jets delivered in 2021.
And Boeing’s total net sales of 774 jets were up 62 per cent versus 479 a year earlier.
Against Boeing’s tally of 479, Airbus delivered 661 jets in 2022.
However, that was significantly below the Airbus target of 700 deliveries for the year. CEO Guillaume Faury cited delays in receiving parts due to the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, energy supply issues, inflation and constrained labour markets.
“The supply chain remains fragile,” Faury said.
And yet, Faury reiterated the ambitious Airbus target to ramp up its A320 single-aisle production to 65 jets per month next year and to 75 jets per month “mid-decade.”