Every 15 to 20 years, it seems, the aviation world undergoes what amounts to a seismic shift in fleets based on real-time events, changes in technology, and, if we’re being honest, hope.

The year that was 2020 helped accelerate some of those changes, as the Boeing 747 faded away from all but a few passenger flights and migrated more toward cargo, where it is likely to earn its keep for at least another decade or more. But the Airbus 380 has sustained a far less glamorous fate. Long hyped as the replacement for the 747 on long-haul, high-density routes, it was never able to live up to its promise. In fact, it never even came close.

The fact that no North American carriers took a bite on the 380 probably contributed to its early demise. Some airports didn’t want to spend the money to beef up runways, taxiways, ramps and gates on a “maybe.” In the end, flying any airplane seats with no passengers in them is expensive, but when the airplane is designed to carry upwards of 500 people, those empty seats get expensive in a hurry, especially when factoring in the cost of operating and maintaining four large jet engines.

As if the B-777 replacing a lot of 747s wasn’t enough, Airbus came out with the A-350 while Boeing added the 787 and larger 777s to the line. For the airlines, these were obvious choices in an industry where the bottom dollar dictates everything. In the current environment in which airplanes are being parked by the hundreds, the twin-engine, long-range jets offer a lot of flexibility and a more nimble response to constantly changing market demands.

On the other end of the spectrum, the old puddle jumpers were replaced by a tsunami of Bombardier CRJs and Embraer 145s. As quickly as the new jets gained in popularity, they wore out their welcome due to high operating costs, uncomfortable seats, and a lack of overhead bin space that required planeside bag checking. They have since been replaced with Embraer’s E-JET series, which are more comfortable, have more storage space, carry more passengers (for a lower per-seat-mile cost) and offer greater range.

In the middle of pack is the line of new engines attached to old airframe designs. The Airbus 320/321 NEOs and the 737 MAX series are designed to launch service on short transatlantic routes while also introducing quantifiable cost savings on routes that historically would have been tough for these airplanes to leverage. It feels like the 727, once the backbone of domestic fleets, has been out of service for far longer than it has been.

Changing fleets on any kind of scale brings a cost to the manufacturers and the airlines that is almost impossible to fathom. Decisions have to be made a decade in advance in an industry where solid information more than six weeks in advance is considered as rare as water in the desert. Rest assured that Boeing, Airbus and Embraer are already working on trying to figure out what those potential needs will be, and what technology will be necessary to bring them to market. Getting it right could mean striking proverbial gold, and getting it wrong…well, that would be like finding yourself stranded in the desert with no water.—Chip Wright
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