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Aviation: All Airliners Are The Same in the Political Game

The opening line to my book, Heathrow Airport, An Illustrated History (Fonthill Media, 2016), says that I am a passenger - not a pilot or an employee otherwise, either of an airline or airport. I remain so today, yet like many others, I am also an enthusiast of aviation and commercial air transport especially.

The roots of my liking for the air are probably seated deeply in my upbringing. Almost from the day I was born, I have been transported by air from somewhere in the world to somewhere else, yet I am far from being a frequent flyer. Those journeys by air that I have made always had a tendency to be a little repetitive; the now closed RAF base at Lyneham in Wiltshire to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus being an early example. The Royal Air Force and the Bristol Britannia was never the quickest way between the two but it had its more unique aspects - it remains today the only example (at least as far as I know) of an airliner fleet having every seat in the passenger cabin facing backwards.

The option of so doing has always been there and it has also always been recognized as the safest way of seating passengers should anything untoward happen but airlines shied away from the idea, saying passengers wouldn’t like it. Perhaps not but the RAF always did take care of British Services personnel and their families as it flew them from posting to posting. Facing the rear certainly beats sitting sideways in the cavernous maw of a Hercules droning its laborious way to the Falklands. That of course, is now a distant memory, such flights taking place today in the comfort of an Airbus A330 from RAF Brize Norton – with seats arranged in the usual way.

Whichever way the seats are, to most passengers, one aircraft is the same as another and an airport terminal is an airport terminal. There are many of us however, me being one obviously, who are more inquiring as to what we fly on and for that that matter also, why this or that particular aircraft is the one in use. The same questions arise in the minds of many who are enthusiastic about air travel yet for a significant number, some of those questions are never answered. For example, why does any airline buy a particular type of aircraft?

In days now long gone, airlines actually owned the aircraft they operated and the expenditure was steep, telephone-number figures beyond the comprehension of the mere mortal (including me) but each manufacturer praised their product and since there was often a choice for the airliner buyer, those claims had to stand up to scrutiny. Even so, there was usually a brand loyalty at least up to a point; Pan American World Airways bought Douglas in the 1950s but then so did nearly everybody else until Boeing came up with the 707. Not quite the world’s first jet airliner since Britain’s Comet beat it into service but the 707 became the world’s workhorse and Pan Am bought a huge number of them. But they also bought the 707’s competitor, the Douglas DC8.

It was something of a statement; as if Pan Am’s chairman, Juan Trippe, was saying, ‘Okay Douglas, we’ve been loyal so far. Now show us which is really better…’. Boeing won for Pan Am but airlines like KLM stayed with Douglas and supplanted their Douglas props with the same firm's jets, the DC8 and DC9. Throughout the 1960s airlines either bought Boeing or did a deal with Douglas, with smaller numbers opting for Britain’s BAC One-Eleven or the French Caravelle. All that changed when Boeing came up with the 747.

Not only was the aircraft big but so was the price and the 1970s saw the airline world tumble into mega-debt, even as the 747 was being delivered to the world’s airlines. Nobody else built anything like it so everybody had to have it and it was a time from which air transport has never really recovered and some of the most well-known air carriers have now passed into history, Pan Am being one.

Despite the financial turbulence that has endured for much of the past forty years or so, those airlines that have survived have continued to upgrade their fleets, although this is because of necessity rather than anything else. Two factors have been dominant; noise is one. The early jets cannot now be flown on commercial services in many parts of the world so whether they liked it or not, airlines either adapted the way in which they financed new, and quieter, aircraft or folded. Which is of course the other aspect – few airlines today have the ready cash to actually buy an aircraft. Instead they are leased, sometimes for the duration of the design life of the aircraft, from global finance companies.

The economics of an airliner are thus even more important than ever and both Boeing and its primary competitor, Airbus, will say that their products are better than the other. That has always been so, no matter what one is acquiring so why is it that many of the major airlines today acquire aircraft from both, including types like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350, which on the face of things, are directly competing types?

Those who read my other contributions to KJM Today will know that much of my time is spent covering politics and it is that which influences air travel, airlines, airports and every passenger who uses them. It always has and the political influence on commercial aviation today is greater than ever, particularly when it comes to airports. Let’s face it, without an airport there is no air travel and it is why my history on Heathrow has been updated. That update includes not only the obvious inclusion of a new runway serving London but the effect of aircraft like the brobdingnagian Airbus A380.

Touted as the successor to the Boeing 747, which is now disappearing from the passenger airways around the world, the A380 was realistically the only way for airlines to increase capacity at airports like Heathrow. Another is Los Angeles – both airports see substantial operations using the A380 yet Airbus have announced the termination of the type. Boeing have maintained for some years that the market for a very large airliner (VLA) was limited and although they have offered an upgraded 747, few airlines have taken it up, preferring to acquire twinjets like the 787 Dreamliner and new versions of the 777. This is where economics come in – with two engines and not four, the 777 and 787 are cheaper to operate than the four engines of the A380 and 747 so airlines are bringing those in to their fleets instead. So why choose a 787 from Boeing and not an A350 from Airbus? Come to that, since the two types are supposed to do much the same thing, why are some airlines getting both?

This is where the political slant comes in. When Boeing competed with Douglas, since the two were both American it didn’t make too much difference which one you bought an aircraft from. Today, with US-based Boeing competing with European-based Airbus, there is often a little more than a nod-and-a-wink involved when it comes to new routes, increasing frequencies on existing routes and generally smoothing the way for an airline to operate. Including what aircraft are acquired.

Not that there are any brown envelopes being handed over under any tables at highway service stations but when Singapore Airlines point out that Boeing does not have an airliner that can fly non-stop between Singapore and New York (the world’s longest route) but Airbus does in the A350 ULR, it is of course being truthful. But then, think about the territory the A350 has to fly over between the two cities. So the airline has an order for the Boeing 787 to make up for it. It is not new. When American Airlines expanded into Europe, taking over from TWA, hey presto! The US giant used Airbus A300-600s to Paris instead of the American-built Douglas DC-10 that was otherwise standard on long-haul routes elsewhere.

The political games that go on around air travel are particularly significant currently over the departure of the UK from the European Union. A tentative agreement for services to continue as they are may now be in place but for services to continue to grow and develop needs the passage to be smoother than it is at the moment. Whatever the will-they-won’t-they result of the machinations surrounding leaving the EU, what will happen is that air travel agreements will be made – there is too much global cash at stake for it not to be so. Airbus needs British Airways to replace more of its existing fleet of A320 family short-haul airliners at some point and guess what? As well as its steadily-growing fleet of 787 Dreamliners, the UK airline is set to receive Airbus A350s. And it does operate the A380.

As to those A320 types, what does any airline replace now-ageing Airbus narrow bodies with - new A320s. With quieter, more fuel-efficient engines. Just like those that British Airways are in fact, receiving. The UK carrier’s initials were once irreverently described as standing for ‘Boeing Always’ but in those days, Airbus was not quite the force it is today and neither was the EU.

Whatever aircraft one flies on, its suitability for the route will be what the airline says it is. But the political games will still be played.

© Kevan James 2019.


‘Heathrow Airport. 70 years and Counting’, the second edition of An Illustrated History, substantially re-written and bringing the story of the airport up to date including three new chapters, will be published in May 2019 by KJM Today

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Photos © Kevan James and Tyler McDowell

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