EVERETT — Early last decade, Boeing and Airbus each set out to develop airplanes to meet clients’ future needs. Boeing came up with the 787, a midsized widebody airplane, while Airbus developed its double-deck A380.
Boeing bet right.
Some industry watchers predicted that the 787 Dreamliner would be a hub-buster, allowing airlines to connect distant cities and bypass hub airports that dominate long-haul travel.
Airlines appear to be using the plane to bolster rather than break their hub-and-spoke networks of routes, according to a new report from the CAPA Centre for Aviation, an aviation-industry consulting firm.
Instead of bypassing hubs all together, air carriers are using the efficient 787 to add long, thin spokes to hubs, for example, connecting Austin, Texas, to London, but not Austin and Liverpool, England.
“London Heathrow to Austin is exactly that kind of route” made possible by the 787, Randy Tinseth, Boeing vice president for marketing, told USAToday in 2014, when British Airways began 787 service between the cities. “It’s really about changing the landscape of aviation.”
Nearly all 787 flights are between hubs or connect secondary cities and hubs, according to CAPA Centre for Aviation’s report.
Nonetheless, many of these routes are profitable for airlines due to the 787’s lower operating costs, size and range, the report says.
Those factors have led to the creation of new long-haul, low-cost carriers, such as Norwegian Air and Scoot, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. These airlines’ strategy of offering cheaper international flights would not be profitable without the 787, according to the report.
Just because a 787 can reach two cities, doesn’t mean an airline can make money flying between them. So feeder routes are necessary for the time being.
United Airlines flies 787s between its hub in San Francisco and Chengdu, China. “United still has to collect enough traffic at its San Francisco hub to make that route work,” said Scott Hamilton, a Bainbridge Island-based aerospace analyst.
There are plenty other city pairs that likely can support direct flights, said Kazue Ishiwata, Sea-Tac International Airport’s senior manager for air service development.
China-based Xiamen Airlines plans to start flights between Seattle and Shenzhen, China, in late September. The 787’s size and range make the route possible, she said. “A 777 or 747 is too large for that market.”
“New widebody aircraft (such as the 787 and Airbus A330neo) have affected our strategy and thinking for international route development,” she said.
The airport is looking to develop new direct flights to secondary cities in China and Southeast Asia.
The 787 is doing what it was designed for and more, Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said. “The 787 is allowing our customers to do things we never imagined. The airplane has opened up 120 new non-stop routes that previously didn’t exist.”
Previously, those routes required at least one pit stop along the way.
Australia’s flag carrier, Qantas, is considering using the 787 for an 18-hour-long non-stop flight from Perth to London. It would be one of the longest commercial flights in the world. The airline already has received 11 787-8s and has orders for eight of the larger 787-9s.
Qantas has based its fleet renewal strategy on the 787. It plans to retire its 747s in 2018 and 2019.
“Because the 787 is smaller than the jumbos it will gradually replace, it gives us the flexibility of having more aircraft without significantly changing our overall capacity,” Joyce said.
Airlines prefer midsized airplanes that cost less, are easier to fill and more easily redeployed within a carrier’s network than the titans of the sky — the 747 and Airbus’ A380.
At the same conference in Brisbane, Australia, Joyce said that Qantas does not want the eight A380s it has on order. The airline has enough need to fill the 12 A380s it already has, but it would “struggle” to use the rest, he said.
Qantas started flying the A380 in 2008, but since then, it has shifted toward offering a greater number of direct flights to more destinations.
The market’s preference is driving Boeing’s product list. By early next decade, the company’s catalog of widebody passenger planes is expected to consist of two models: the 777X and 787. Similarly, Airbus’ catalog likely will rest on two widebody models: the A330neo and the A350.
Each of the rival airplane makers has announced plans to cut production of their biggest commercial airplanes — the 747 and A380. A Boeing executive recently said the company is considering paring down its future 787 production. The company has started production on the biggest Dreamliner model, the 787-10, which is slated for its first delivery in 2018.
Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; email@example.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.