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Ocean of Choice

Forty-five years ago, when Pan Am’s Boeing 747 appeared on the London-New York route, passengers believed air travel could only get better.

Back in 1970, airlines and aircraft manufacturers proclaimed it was the era of the wide-body jet. Larger aircraft such as the 747, DC-10 and Lockheed Tri-Star would replace narrow-bodies like the 707, DC-8 and VC-10. Passengers taking long-distance flights could look forward to a roomier, more comfortable and smoother flying experience.

However, as we have seen so many times before over the last 100 years, when it comes to aviation nothing is set in stone. Although wide-body jets enabled the airlines to provide passengers with a superior experience, they were a mixed blessing in a competitive market.

In the distant past, larger aircraft enabled the airlines to get away with offering passengers fewer flights. It was good news for the carriers (because they could control capacity), the airports (because they had room for expansion) and the environment. However, it wasn’t good news for passengers. Not only was there less choice, but fewer flights also meant higher load factors, which in turn pushed up prices.

That unhealthy situation existed for a couple of decades after the 747’s arrival because regulations at the time restricted choice. But in today’s liberalized and ever-more competitive market, passengers demand a range of options.

This is where the narrow-body aircraft have come into their own. Cheaper to operate, they also have fewer seats so are easier to fill. It means they are a flexible option for newcomer carriers.

The 747 and its ilk reigned supreme across the Atlantic for a good number of years. Until Continental decided to start serving a number of secondary destinations from New York using two-class, narrow-bodied 757s – aircraft more at home on 500-mile flights within Europe than on 3,500-mile trans-Atlantic marathons.

These 757s used by Continental (now part of United) were fitted with extra fuel tanks, allowing them to fly greater distances, and their smaller cabins made them easier to fill on less busy routes to the UK, mainland Europe and Scandinavia. More recently, American Airlines has emulated Continental with 757 services to various secondary airports.

Passengers now had a choice. If they wanted a comfortable wide-body experience, then they flew from a major airport. But if they wanted to travel from their local airport then, by and large, they had to opt for a single-aisle product.

Until now – leaving aside the specialized all-business class routes – that has largely been the case for regular flights.

But the 757s are getting older (my first trip on this aircraft type was with BA on the London-Glasgow shuttle service back in 1983), and so Airbus and Boeing have long-haul versions of their popular twin-engined short-haul A321s and 737s ready to enter service in the coming years.

Airbus is proposing the A321 Neo LR (“Neo” standing for “new engine option,” LR for long range). This can carry up to 240 passengers in a one-class layout on a long flight, although it would accommodate fewer passengers on a two-class trans-Atlantic mission.

Boeing has developed the 737 MAX, which is yet another development of the aircraft that first entered service with Lufthansa in 1968. Seat capacity is about 200 but the actual number will depend on individual airline configurations.

The 737 MAX made its maiden flight in January, and it’s expected to go into service in 2017. Budget airline Norwegian has put in its order for a huge fleet of 100, which will enable it to operate between the UK, mainland Europe and US East Coast ports such as Boston, New York and Washington.

Interviewed on Danish site, Norwegian chief executive Bjorn Kjos said that the 737 MAX would open up new opportunities for routes to the US.

“The MAX planes are smaller than the 787 Dreamliner [the mainstay of Norwegian’s long-range fleet] but are still able to fly across the Atlantic,” he said.

“This creates the opportunity to fly directly between smaller airports such as Aalborg [Denmark] and Bergen [Norway] to the US East Coast nonstop. On these routes we would never be able to fill a wide-body, but without any problems we can fill a narrow-body such as the MAX and still fly nonstop.”

Norwegian has announced that some of its initial 737 flights (using either 737-800 or MAX versions) will operate between Cork and Boston beginning in May of this year. Another route linking the Irish city with New York is planned for 2017, pending USDOT approval. Additional sectors will be unveiled in due course.

In February, the shorter-range A321 Neo went into service for Lufthansa on its Frankfurt-Munich route. But the launch of that aircraft’s longer-range sibling, the A321 Neo LR, is still a few years away (deliveries expected in 2019) and it is as yet unclear which airlines will acquire it or the routes it will serve.

However, from IAG’s submission to the Irish government regarding Aer Lingus, it was revealed that if the airport group were allowed to acquire Aer Lingus it would consider launching trans-Atlantic flights from Shannon using the A321 Neo LR.

It is true that versions of the 737 and A321 already ply the Atlantic, but these are limited in number and are either all-business class offerings or make an en route stopover to refuel.

Canadian budget carrier Westjet operates nonstop high-density flights from Halifax to Dublin and Glasgow. This can be achieved because they are just that much closer to one another than the main trans-Atlantic city pairs.

Still, it is possible to use a 737 aircraft nonstop across the Atlantic. Everyone was surprised by the recent announcements from Scandinavia’s SAS that it would start a Copenhagen-New York Newark service this winter (alongside its existing route) with a two-class 737 leased from upmarket Swiss charter carrier Privatair. The airline will also operate a 737 between Copenhagen and Boston next summer.

This particular aircraft can accomplish its mission as it is fitted with only 20 business class and 66 economy seats, so passenger and baggage weight is reduced.

SAS has switched the jet from the Stavanger-Houston route (where it offered an all-business class configuration) and is taking advantage of Copenhagen- New York now that the US airlines have retreated from the market.

Once they enter service, the A321 Neo LR and 737 MAX are set to change the way we cross the Atlantic. Not only are they cheaper to operate than the 757, but they will also provide passengers with more

choice and convenience.

Fares, especially in premium class, should be competitive, although much will depend on the price of oil in the years ahead, and on seating configurations.

Still, remember that these are essentially short-haul aircraft. Do not expect the same standards of comfort and space normally found on a wide-body.