Friday, October 24, 2014

Google exec sets a new record for highest-altitude jump (video)

Move over Felix Baumgartner (pictured above) -- just two years after the daredevil's record setting 128,000 foot Red Bull Stratos space jump, Google VP Alan Eustace has topped it. The New York Times reports Eustace rode a balloon 135,908 feet above...
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The End of the (Passenger, Widebody) Trijet: Saying Goodbye to the MD-11

A KLM MD-11 coming in for a landing at Montreal - Photo: Doug | Flickr CC

A KLM MD-11 coming in for a landing at Montreal – Photo: Doug | Flickr CC

The MD-11 was probably a bad idea. McAir came up with the aircraft because it was a bigger, meaner, DC-10. So much DC-10 that there originally was not going to be an MD-11, but a DC-10 stretch. There were two attempts at this aircraft: a DC-10-10 stretched by 40 feet, and a DC-10-30 stretched by 30 feet.  Concurrently, McDonnell Douglas was concerned about the range of the 747-SP and began work on an ultra-long-range DC-10 Global.

This research lead to an aircraft series called the DC-10 Super 60. The DC-10 Super 60 was going to be a series. A simple stretch, an ultra-long-range variant, and an aircraft optimized for both range and capacity. Unfortunately for McDonnell Douglas, the American Airlines 191 crash happened – summarily executing the DC-10 program. It did not help that there was economic malaise going on at the time, either.

An MD-11 arriving at Kingsford-Smith Airport, Sydney. Photo - Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Many MD-11s have been converted to cargo duty. An example arriving at Kingsford-Smith Airport, Sydney. Photo – Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Being the kings of iteration that they were, in 1981 they decided to revive the large trijet research. Leasing a DC-10-10 from Continental, they studied various winglet configurations in conjunction with NASA. For reasons of marketing, this project would be designated the MD-100. This was an interesting project as it actually offered more engine options than the final MD-11, in the form of the Rolls Royce RB.211. By November 1983, it was clear there was no interest in the MD-100. The board shuttered it.

Thai Airways International MD-11 - Photo Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

Thai Airways International MD-11 – Photo Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

By this point, airlines were starting to question the viability and future of McDonnell Douglas as a commercial aircraft manufacturer. No new DC-10 orders were placed in 1984. The line was only active because of the U.S. Air Force order for sixty KC-10s.

The board, however, was still convinced that there was need for a new DC-10 variant. This time, it was to be called the MD-11. The MD-11 was to come in two versions, both powered by either General Electric CF-6s or Pratt & Whtiney PW4000s. There was to be the MD-11X-10 (identical in length to the DC-10-30 but with a much higher Max Gross Weight and range of 6,500nm) and the MD-11X-20 (a 331-seat stretch with a range of only 6,000nm).

A VASP MD-11 at Zurich Airport in 1996 - Photo: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

A VASP MD-11 at Zurich Airport in 1996 – Photo: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

When the board granted authority to offer in July of 1985, the MD-11 was morphing into a different DC-10 configuration once more. This time it was a baseline 320-seat aircraft with a stretch of 18’7″ over the DC-10-30, with a range of 6,800nm. There was also to be a shorter MD-11ER, with a range of 7,500nm. Other proposed variants were both dedicated and combi freighters. McDonnell Douglas also dreamed of stretches.

The MD-11 was officially launched on December 30, 1986, with 52 firm orders and 40 options. Ten airlines and two lessors made up the customer base. Three customers had already backed out by the first aircraft’s assembly in 1988.

The first MD-11s were intended as freighters for FedEx, but were held onto as test articles until 1991.

A Finnair MD-11 - Photo: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

A Finnair MD-11 – Photo: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

Finnair’s first MD-11 was delivered on December 7, 1990 (after a host of delays). The aircraft were originally intended for JAT Yugoslav Airways, but they were not taken up due to the raging civil war in that, now defunct, country. Delta would be the first American operator of the MD-11; also in 1990.

After entering into revenue service, it became clear that the MD-11 was not performing as it said on the box. Nowhere close, at least in airline terms. Singapore Airlines, frustrated with the payload and range shortfalls declared that they could not use the aircraft on their long-haul routes. They cancelled their twenty frame order. American Airlines was, in the words of Robert Crandall, “very unhappy.” They cited both aerodynamic problems and issues with Pratt & Whitney for the 4% higher-than-expected fuel burn. Delta was also a little cross – they were experiencing dispatch reliability issues with their first batch of aircraft.

Delta MD-11 - Photo: Aero Icarus | Flickr CCDelta MD-11 - Photo: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

Delta MD-11 – Photo: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

McDonnell Douglas scrambled to devise a performance improvement program with Pratt & Whitney to try and make the aircraft live up to its promises. Collaborating with NASA’s Langley Research Center, this program lasted until 1995. It worked. Unfortunately the MD-11 was already seen as an under-performer and was getting destroyed by its twin-engine competitors. Sales never recovered.

McDonnell Douglas and Boeing merged in 1997, and Boeing announced that only freighter production would continue. They changed their tune in 1998 and announced that production would cease after current orders were fulfilled.

A Sabena MD-11 coming in for landing at Zurich - Image: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

A Sabena MD-11 coming in for landing at Zurich – Image: Aero Icarus | Flickr CC

The last passenger MD-11 was delivered to Sabena in 1998. The last freighter went to Lufthansa Cargo on January 25, 2001.

The MD-11 was one of the first commercial aircraft to use computer-assisted pitch stability augmentation. It even had a fuel-ballast tank in the horizontal stabilizer. Much of this was necessary because the aircraft’s tailplane was smaller than the DC-10’s to improve fuel efficiency. This would actually come back to haunt the design, as it made the aircraft not only challenging to land, but also inhibited its crosswind performance.

Furthermore, the aircraft was designed with a center of gravity much farther aft than most airliners. The FAA also urged Boeing to update the flight control software, as the aircraft was potentially prone to violent, unintentional pitch movements and oscillation.

The MD-11 also suffered thirteen incidents, eight hull loses, and a loss of 240 lives.

An MD-11BCF head on at Sydney's Kingsford-Smith Airport. Photo - Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

An MD-11BCF head-on at Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith Airport – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

The majority of passenger MD-11s were gone by 2004. Some airlines abandoned them much faster. Korean Air made it known that they wanted to convert their MD-11s to freighters as early as the closing days of 1994. American Airlines agreed to sell their nineteen MD-11s to FedEx in 1995. In American’s case, not before leasing two of their frames to failed start-up USAfrica Airways.

Finnair’s MD-11s soldiered on in passenger service until February 22, 2010. As of today, only KLM operates a dwindling number of MD-11s. They will retire from commercial service on October 25. There will, however, be enthusiast flights to celebrate the MD-11 on November 11th. KLM is also offering prizes in an MD-11 trivia contest.

KLM, thankfully, is aware of the enthusiast love for the MD-11.

So why do we love the MD-11? It underperformed, lands like a fighter jet, and has some alarming safety issues that the NTSB still wants corrected. It seems like that would disqualify it from everyone’s list of favorites.

Oddly, that’s exactly why it’s loved. It represents an era when flying was a challenge – when skies, and liveries, were diverse. If you love the DC-10, you probably also love the MD-11. Because of, and despite, its flaws.

We’re going to miss the MD-11.

I will be on the last commercial MD-11 flight for KLM tomorrow, so be sure to stay tuned!

 Bernie Leighton – Managing Correspondent 

Bernie has traveled around the world to learn about, experience & photograph different types of planes. Bernie will go anywhere to fly on anything. He spent four years in Australia learning about how to run an airline, while putting his learning into practice by mileage running around the world. You can usually find Bernie in his natural habitat: an airport.

 @PowerToTheThird | Flickr

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Don’t Be Fooled, The Cheapest Possible Day to Buy Airline Tickets Really Is…

If you’re looking for the cheapest day to buy tickets, you want to read How and When to Find the Cheapest Airfares.

What you don’t want to do is believe the ARC study that says Sundays are the cheapest day to buy airfare.

I was actually expecting that the Airlines Reporting Corporation, which has tons of real data to parse through, would actually offer a useful data-driven answer to “what’s the cheapest day to buy airline tickets” as though that were really a thing.

The problem is that their data set is actual ticket purchases and not airfares. So they’re capturing the average price of tickets purchased on a given day of the week, not the cheapest day to buy tickets.

The reason why there is a difference is because different kinds of tickets are purchased on different days of the week.

It’s really quite simple: very few price insensitive business traveler airfare purchases are made on the weekend. So the sample bias is that on the weekend you have a disproportionate number of price sensitive leisure ticket purchases, while business traveler ticket purchases show up more in the weekday data.

The Aviation Biz Blog shows the study’s airfare by day of week chart.

Here’s the average price of domestic ticket by day of the week purchased:

cheapest day to buy tickets airline airfare

Here’s Why The Data on the Cheapest Day to Buy Tickets is Misleading

Unsurprisingly, the volume of purchases and the average airfare is lower on Saturday and Sunday than it is during the business week. It isn’t that airlines are aggressively discounting on the weekends, when they have fewer revenue management staff working. And it isn’t the case that you will find lower ticket prices on the weekend.

Instead you will find that the people buying airfare on the weekend will be buying their tickets farther in advance, at times other than peak travel times, as roundtrips where fare rules require it (and with Saturday stays when fare rules require that). And the people purchasing tickets will disproportionately adjust their travel times to choose flights that cost less.

We see a very similar pattern for international airline ticket purchases as well.

Bottom-line is that while this data, that ARC is in a unique position to provide, is interesting — telling us what days of the week the cheaper tickets were purchased doesn’t tell us the cheapest day to buy tickets.

It only tells us when other price sensitive shoppers are buying.

You can join the 40,000+ people who see these deals and analysis every day — sign up to receive posts by email (just one e-mail per day) or subscribe to the RSS feed. It’s free. You can also follow me on Twitter for the latest deals. Don’t miss out!

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Slack Is Raising Another Round At Up To A $1B Valuation

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 10.41.26 AM Slack, the enterprise collaboration platform co-founded by Stewart Butterfield of Flickr fame, continues to defy its namesake: we have heard from sources that the company is raising a new round of funding at a valuation of between $800 million and $1 billion, just six months after raising nearly $43 million. The total raise is said to be eight figures and Sequoia and KPCB are participating,… Read More
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Ode to the MD-11, An Airplane That Proved the Importance of Innovation (or Lack Thereof)

This week marks the final commercial flight of the last of the Douglas widebody aircraft. When KLM flight 672 from Montreal touches down in Amsterdam at 635a on Sunday, the era of the trijet in airline service will officially end. I’ll miss the MD-11, but today I’m going to focus on the negative. The MD-11 was a symbol of failure for McDonnell Douglas, and there are lessons to be learned.

It’s no secret that I love Douglas airplanes. After all, the Douglas Aircraft Company built nearly every jet it produced here in Long Beach, not far from where I live. (Sure, I moved here after the last commercial jet came off the line, but that doesn’t matter.) It’s safe to say that the Douglas Aircraft Company was one of the more innovative companies building airplanes. The DC-3 was revolutionary in its versatility. Not only was it a great war transport during World War II, but it made for an excellent passenger transport as well. Airlines had long struggled to profit by flying passengers, but the DC-3 was the first airplane to carry a large enough load to make it possible.

From that point on, Douglas built some of the great piston-driven aircraft of all time. The DC-4, DC-6, and DC-7 were all important airplanes, but they were immediately rendered irrelevant when the jet age arrived. When that happened, Douglas dove right in. First was the DC-8 and then the venerable DC-9 for short haul operations. The company’s first entry into widebody flying was the mighty DC-10. That trijet was meant to provide a mid to long range option with less capacity than a 747. Fresh off its 1967 merger with McDonnell, the newly-minted McDonnell Douglas officially launched the DC-10 in 1968. It was all downhill from there.

Despite building airplanes for 30 years beyond the merger, McDonnell Douglas never created and produced a new commercial design. The DC-8 was stretched a few times until it faded into history. The DC-9 was the most successful jet the company produced. It was stretched from the original DC-9-10 into the -30, the -40, and the -50 before it was renamed as the MD-80 after another stretch. (Yes, that’s really just a DC-9-80.) It eventually was shrunk into the MD-87, stretched again into the MD-90, and finally shrunk one more time into the MD-95, an airplane you know as the Boeing 717. It was renamed after Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas. Both the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 families easily surpassed the DC-9 family. The last 717 rolled off the line in Long Beach in 2006, and with that, the end of the Douglas commercial aircraft lineage had arrived.

As for the DC-10, it had a few different variants and, despite some high profile crashes, was a moderately successful airplane. It proved to be quite the reliable workhorse later in life with the last one not being retired until earlier this year by Biman Bangladesh. But when the time came for McDonnell Douglas to innovate, the company failed completely.

Sure, McDonnell Douglas had its chances. In the early 1970s, the company began floating the idea of a DC-10 Twin with, obviously, only 2 engines. Boeing’s 767 wouldn’t fly for another decade. And though Airbus was about to fly the A300 for the first time, it would be years before anyone would take that manufacturer seriously. McDonnell Douglas punted, and the idea never went anywhere.

Instead, the company lumbered along by tweaking its existing products. By 1986, the writing was on the wall for the DC-10. Airbus officially named its updated version of the A300 the A330. It had been developing that for a decade. Meanwhile, Boeing’s 767 was picking up steam and the company was working on ways to expand its size and reach while still retaining only two engines. A couple years later, those efforts would become the 777. What did McDonnell Douglas do? Just before the end of the year, it opted to just stretch the DC-10 into the MD-11.

The MD-11 was a bit more than just a stretch. Sure it had room for more people, but it also had a redesigned wing, new engines, and a two-person cockpit with modern avionics. But it still had 3 engines, and in a world where efficiency matters, that was a huge problem.

The only hope for the MD-11 to really succeed was by providing great range. The A330 and 767 could fly many routes but they lacked the reach that twin engine aircraft can provide today. The 747 was still the king of the skies on long haul, but it had 4 engines and a ton of seats. The MD-11 could have found a niche. It didn’t. The airplane didn’t meet its range promises. Singapore Airlines canceled its orders. Others were not pleased.

But even if the MD-11 had lived up to its promises, it would have been rendered obsolete fairly quickly with the advent of the 777. McDonnell Douglas just never bothered to see the importance of innovation.

Every so often, there was a glimmer of hope. In the early 1990s, McDonnell Douglas put out the idea of an MD-12. Basically, it was an A380 before the A380 existed. That went nowhere, and the company went back to proposing further tweaks to the aging MD-11.

"Md-12-2" by Anynobody - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Md-12-2″ by Anynobody – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

There was also an attempt to leapfrog the competition in the narrowbody market by playing with a new engine technology. The unducted fan or ultra high bypass looked like the confused offspring of a jet and a prop. But it was quiet and extremely fuel efficient. Oil prices started declining, however, so McDonnell Douglas abandoned that plan and instead outfitted the MD-90 with the same engines that Airbus already had on its A320.

Ken Fielding/ [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ken Fielding/ [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

With so many missed opportunities to do something — anything — different, McDonnell Douglas became an also-ran in serious financial trouble. After flirting with Airbus, the end came in 1996 when it agreed to be bought by Boeing. You can still see the company’s influence in Boeing today, however. When Boeing decided to forgo building an all-new narrowbody and instead just beef up the 737 into the 737MAX? That has the hallmark of a short-sighted McDonnell Douglas-style decision. It may save money and time now, but it doesn’t bode well for the future.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed flying the MD-11. I was lucky enough to fly it once from LA to Portland on Delta as part of Delta’s failed Transpacific hub operation up there. Then I did it again as a roundtrip from New York to Helsinki on Finnair. The airplane has served KLM well for a long time, and it still has a future in the cargo world for awhile. But when I see the MD-11, all I can think about is what should have been if McDonnell Douglas had continued on the path of innovation that the Douglas Aircraft Company began so many years ago.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

ANALYSIS: Delta Delivers Solid Financial Results But Worrying Signs Emerge

by Vinay Bhaskara / Published October 22nd, 2014

Disclosure: Author is long DAL


A Delta Boeing 747. All images courtesy of Airchive.

Delta Air Lines recorded a $579 million pre-tax profit for the third quarter of 2014, beating analyst estimates to yet another quarter of record profitability. On a net GAAP-basis, Delta’s profit was $357 million ($0.42 per diluted share), while excluding special items, Delta’s pre and post-tax net profit figures were $1.6 billion and $1 billion ($1.20 per share) respectively

Delta’s total revenue rose sharply, 6.6% year-over-year (YOY) to $11.17 billion, led by a 5.6 percent increase in passenger revenue to $9.78 billion. Mainline passenger revenue rose 7.6 percent YOY to $8.14 billion, while regional revenues declined 3.3% YOY to $1.63 billion, reflecting changes in Delta’s fleet and capacity mix. For the quarter, Delta took delivery of 22 aircraft but retired 34, including 24 50-seat regional jets, allowing it to generate 2 percent higher domestic capacity on a 4.5 percent reduction in departures.

Delta's Economy Comfort seats.

Delta’s Economy Comfort seats.

Reversing a worrying trend from prior quarters, cargo revenue rose a healthy 6.6 percent to $244 million. Other operating revenues, which includes revenues from Delta’s SkyMiles frequent flyer program, rose 15 percent YOY to $1.16 billion. Passenger revenue per available seat mile (PRASM) rose 2.4 percent YOY to 14.83 cents on a 1.8 percent increase in yields to 17.16 cents and a 3.2 percent increase in capacity as measured by available seat miles (ASMs).  Delta’s growth in top-line revenues was driven in part by a 6 percent rise in corporate revenues, led by the financial services, automotive, banking, and media sectors. Ancillary revenue initiatives generated $290 million in the quarter, with 20 percent growth in the Economy Comfort and First Class upsell initiatives pushing paid first class load factors up to 44 percent. Rival United Airlines has also generated a similar effect with its own up-sell scheme, though the schemes also run the risk of alienating high value frequent flyers.

Turning to specific operating segments, a summary of Delta’s revenue figures by region is shown in the table below.

Delta 3Q chart jpg

As the data indicates, Delta’s operations are currently being powered by the domestic operating segment, in line with the improved performance of the U.S. economy relative to others around the world. Within the domestic segment, New York LaGuardia’s performance outpaced other hubs with 10 percent unit revenue growth, while Seattle managed to generate a 6 percent YOY increase in PRASM despite 25 percent capacity growth. Trans-Atlantic PRASM was flat on a 4% increase in capacity, and while those figures may seem worrying at first glance, most of Delta’s growth in term of capacity is in the high-value London Heathrow market in conjunction with Virgin Atlantic, where the economic and demand fundamentals are far stronger.


Tokyo Narita Terminal 1

Currency effects continued to hammer Latin American and Pacific operations with PRASM down 5.1 percent and 2.2 percent respectively on a 16.2 percent increase in capacity YOY and a 0.5 percent decrease. Delta continues to unwind its Tokyo Narita hub as it grows capacity in Seattle, but the yen remains a substantial portion of Delta’s overall Asian revenues. Meanwhile in Latin America, growth slowdown and extreme currency devaluation in Argentina and Venezuela have hampered two of the most profitable regions in Latin America.

Turning to expenses, operating expenses rose 15.9 percent YOY to $10.3 billion, though excluding special items, the rise was just 3.6 percent YOY. Aircraft fuel expenses (excluding one-time costs) fell 1 percent YOY to $2.27 billion, driven by lower fuel prices and improved profitability at the Trainer Refinery. Other expense line items were mostly flat YOY on a per-ASM basis excepting aircraft maintenance, which declined 7.2 percent YOY to $440 million. Labor expenses rose 4.8 percent YOY to $2.07 billion, though the figure was higher including profit sharing expenses, which rose 54.2 percent to $384 million.

Turning to financial metrics, operating income for the quarter excluding special items was $1.93 billion, up 23.5 percent YOY. Delta’s operating margin for the quarter was 15.8 percent, exceeding Delta’s own targets from the past three to four years and elevating the full service airline towards operating margins normally seen exclusively by low cost carriers (LCCs) around the world. Trailing 12 months return on invested capital was 19.3 percent, positioning Delta as the top airline amongst its legacy peers. Free cash flow, an investor-targeted metric, rose to $910 million on $411 in capital expenditures.

We have been exceedingly positive on Delta’s forward looking financials in this space since it was launched but a few Delta-specific trends have us worried about short-term financial prospects. We will preface the discussion below by stipulating that we see little potential for earnings, margins, or even revenue degradation for Delta over the next ten years, our worries largely fall on the prospects of expansion of these metrics over the next 5-7 quarters. The airline industry, in our opinion, still has another 6-8 quarters left in the current positive cycle left to run through mid to late 2016.

That being said, looking at Delta’s specific trends, there are a few worrying signs. First, due to its policy of aggressive hedging and of course its operation of the Trainer refinery, Delta is not as well positioned as other US airlines to take advantage of the recent decline in the dollar-denominated oil price. Delta’s management claims that it will still be able to participate in “80 percent” of the improvement in fuel prices.


Delta Air Lines Airbus A319 at LAX Airport.

We are less sure – while the Trainer refinery did generate a $19 million profit for the quarter, it is unclear how much progress Delta has made in being able to handle an oil price that is $15 per barrel lower (West Texas Intermediate) while still operating profitably. To us, the more realistic number is 65 percent (in terms of Delta’s participation in the fuel cost decline), especially because Delta’s ability to further push down crack spread is limited. And that 65 percent number caps Delta’s earnings growth potential relative to its peers.

But the bigger worry we have for Delta is revenue, more specifically how it continues to generate PRASM growth in the current environment. Latin America is a mixed bag – some countries remain strong, while others (notably Argentina) are rapidly devolving into basket cases. Commodity prices around the world are falling, which bodes poorly for other key South American markets like Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and even Brazil and Colombia.

Meanwhile, Asian revenues are likely to suffer for the next 3-4 quarters as Seattle’s role in the overall Asian capacity mix continues to rise proportionately and those routes spool up. The plan to eliminate the 747-400 fleet by 2017 is a positive sign for margins in Asia, as is the reduction in fuel prices (which improves the operating economics of the relatively gas-guzzling Boeing 777-200LRs).

But economies in the region are in a lower growth phase (and there has been a recent surge in new service from East Asian carriers), so the PRASM environment is likely to remain rough. Delta is more exposed to Africa than either American or United, in particular West Africa, and while we think that fearing Ebola in the developed nations of North America and Europe is an overreaction, in Africa those fears intersect with demand in a tangible manner.


Delta MD-82 at Philadelphia International Airport.

But by far the largest worry is Delta’s step-up in domestic capacity. For its forward-looking 2015 capacity figures, Delta is talking about 2 percent capacity growth (implying 4 percent capacity growth in the U.S.). That 4 percent figure is worrying. It is on the higher end of our expectations for U.S. GDP growth in 2015, but more importantly, Delta and the other network and legacy airlines have reached this point of unprecedented profitability primarily because they kept capacity growth below that of GDP, allowing them to drive up fares.

And it’s not as though Delta is adding domestic capacity in fortress hubs such as Detroit or Atlanta in monopoly markets. Rather, it is throwing a ton of competitive capacity into Seattle and Los Angeles. To be clear, both of these expansions have a solid underlying strategic justification (Asia and increasing relevance for corporate travel contracts respectively). But the capacity that Delta is adding is substantial and dilutive to its PRASM.

Alaska is a fierce, lower cost competitor with a ton of embedded market loyalty, while Los Angeles is simply a bloodbath. Seattle by itself might be viable, but when paired with likely fare and capacity wars in Los Angeles, it’s difficult to see how Delta’s capacity actions won’t adversely impact margin and profitability growth. Delta’s underlying business fundamentals are of course fantastic, but in a period where airlines must count on the domestic business to drive PRASM growth, perhaps fighting a two-front war on the West Coast is not the most sensible course of action.


Contact the author at

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Differences in surface tension can create Marangoni flow along...

Differences in surface tension can create Marangoni flow along an interface. Imagine a shallow bowl filled with a liquid. In the middle of the fluid, every molecule is surrounded on all sides by like molecules, which push and pull it equally in all directions. But at the surface, the fluid molecules are only acted on by similar molecules in some directions. This imbalance in molecular forces is what creates surface tension. When the surface tension is constant, the fluid surface is like a taut rubber sheet. Poke a hole in that sheet, and everything pulls away from the hole. Likewise, when the surface tension varies, fluid will move from areas of low surface tension toward areas of higher surface tension. This effect is easily demonstrated at home in a setup like the animation above. Pour milk (higher fat content is better) and food coloring in a shallow container. Then lower the local surface tension using dish soap or rubbing alcohol and watch the colors run away! (Image credit: Flow Visualization at UC Boulder, source video)

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Speedy Citation X+ continues record-setting ways

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E-Jet, the project that shaped Embraer

By Bjorn Fehrm


In a recent visit to Embraer in Brazil we got a thorough brief on the background and decision making around the E-Jet and E-Jet E2 programs. We have written about these programs before but we will now cover how they came about, what was the program objective when the decision was taken and how it panned out. Both programs have had and will have a profound influence not only on Embraer but the whole civil aviation segment between 70-150 seats. It is worth looking into how Embraer, once an also-ran in the regional market, rose to the top three spot in civil aviation after Airbus and Boeing and how EMB intends to stay there.


  • American Airlines was part of changing history in regional jets, long before in single aisle.
  • E-jet started as a product program and soon put Embraer on a steep learning curve how to support an E-jet in the market above 50 seat regional jets.
  • Embraer today rates their support second only to Boeing and Airbus.
  • The requirements for the mid-life update of their E-jet, the E2, is all about delivering a mature product. This has shaped all aspects of the program, from cooperation with suppliers to how testing and qualification is done.
KLM E-jet

Figure 1. KLM Cityhopper E-jet taking off. Source: KLM


The pivot moment

With the development of the ERJ-145 from the turbo-prop EMB-120 Brasilia Embraer avoided bankruptcy in the mid 1990s. Very quickly after the entry into service of the ERJ-145 in 1996, Embraer announced the game-changing E-Jet in June 1999. The decision to go for E-Jet had been taken the year before. With hardly a year of solid deliveries of the ERJ-145, what causes an organization to complement and later replace it with a clean sheet design, so soon after developing another airplane? Here’s the story and don’t be surprised to see history repeat itself.

The events leading up to the launch decision for the E-Jet had a by now well known setting:  American Airlines, an RFQ and two tough competitors.  The RFQ was for 50-seater and 70-seater regional jets and the year was 1997. Embraer and Bombardier bid for both. Embraer won the 50 seater (ERJ-145) but lost the 70 seater to Bombardier for the CRJ-700. The loss of the larger segment had a profound effect on the internal discussions at Embraer; it was clear that the company could not rely on the ERJ-145 for the future. Being a three-abreast development of the 30-seater Brazilia turboprop, it saved Embraer for the moment but would not carry into the future. Combined with even deeper market studies, the memory of the AA defeat lead to the 1998 decision and 1999 launch of the clean sheet E-Jet. It was designed for a 70-120 seat category where Embraer was not present. Bombardier (CRJ-700/900), Fokker (70/100), BAe (146), Boeing (717/737-600) and Airbus (318) were present. There was also the Fairchild-Dornier 728 project with a launch order from Lufthansa.

How E-Jet changed Embraer

The development of E-Jet was very much a product achievement for Embraer. The maximum size of the aircraft (in 170 and 190 variants) was over double the 50 seat ERJ-135/145 and the configuration was totally new with a double-bubble fuselage offering mainline comfort in a 2+2 arrangement, engines under the wings and a classical empennage.  The engines for the smaller variant (170, later 175) were the same as for the hardest competitor, Bombardier CRJ700, General Electric CF34-8, making the E-Jet’s efficiency at best equal to the smaller CRJ700. Embraer had bet the company on mainline dimensions for the cabin and the ensuing customer comfort.

E-jet sale and deliveries

Figure 2. Embraer slide showing orders and deliveries from EIS 2004 to June 2014. Source: Embraer.

We now know that Embraer’s bet worked. After first delivery to LOT Polish Airlines in 2004 over 1050 E-jets has been delivered to date, with the 1,000th E-Jet delivered September 2013 to Republic Airlines.

During our visit Embraer candidly told us about the learning experience the new airplane, market and customer base presented. From a second place in the market for 50 seat regional jets, the E-Jet catapulted Embraer to large orders from mainline carriers like JetBlue, Air Canada and US Airways.  The sales people had to learn how to talk to mainline fleet planners and purchasers and the expectations for product support was on another level. Embraer was stretched thin to respond to engine troubles at JetBlue or cold start hydraulic issues at Air Canada.

The initial problems were resolved and in the process Embraer built a support organization that was on par with the aircraft’s capabilities and sales. Today more than 1,000 E-Jet are flown by 65 airlines in 45 countries.

Customers on all continents

Figure 3. Embraer slide showing spread of customers for their E-jet model. Source: Embraer.

To support these and 1,300 other Embraer aircraft in operation over the world, a support organization of more than 1,200 people has been built. It manages a 24/7/365 Customer Care Center where any customer request has an answer to agreed service level time in over 95% of the cases—and EMB believes this is still not good enough. Target is to reach the bench-mark for excellence when it comes to customer support, Boeing. Embraer considers itself only trailing Airbus and Boeing today. The aim is to ultimately pass Airbus.

The way there has been long and challenging. Embraer Services & Support VP Johann Bordais told us that good ideas had been collected from all players in the market. As an example: Fokker was the leader in Web-based support. When customers told Embraer this, EMB quickly investigated, learned and rebuilt that part of their support. Boeing, on the other hand, has the best Aircraft On Ground (AOG) operation; once again investigate, learn and build. It has been an enormous change process since the days of the ERJ and the early E-Jet days when Embraer saw its role as supplying spare parts and provide “free market” MROs and airline technical departments with maintenance information. This was not good-enough for Embraer’s customers, they wanted Embraer to be active in the after market support of their products. Today Embraer operates two owned service centers, has nine authorized centers and supports 26 independent MRO organizations worldwide.

E2, a major make-over technically and mentally

The decision to do a comprehensive mid-life kicker for the E-Jet follow on, the E-Jet E2, was natural. The aircraft still enjoyed strong sales and the fuselage and cabin was still perceived as one of the most comfortable in the market. The cross-section of 2+2 limits the covered segment to a maximum of 120-132 seats in typical coach configurations, but at the time of decision (2011), this carried the charm of not encroaching on the turf of the big two (the space of the 737 MAX7 and A319neo). The strategy was to serve the segment that E-Jet was dominating with capacity adjustments of the small segment to 76 seats (US market scope clause limit) and extending the top of the line to 132 seats. It was also necessary to increase efficiency to protect from new, more efficient entries like Bombardiers CSeries and Mitsubishi MRJ.

E-jet lineup

Figure 1. E-Jet to E-Jet E2 migration path with capacity adjustments. Source: Embraer.

Embraer decided to build new wings for both the 175 model and the larger 190 / 195 models. Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic was a serious consideration for the main wingbox but in the overall trade-off, the extra cost could not be justified by the gains. Special angled tips, a bit different from the Boeing raked tips, was found to be more efficient then winglets, resulting in a total span increases of 17% and an aspect ratio increase of 20%.

The engine selection stood between General Electric CF34ng (essentially a smaller LEAP) and Pratt & Whitney’s GTF. We were told that the decision to leave GE and switch to P&W GTF was primarily made for program maturity reasons, and not for any doubts about the CF34ng’s capability to compete on performance. GE’s engine was in a projected phase and the P&W GTF engines were already running on test stands. The GTF was seen as the safer choice despite an always touchy switch in engine supplier for the product line that carries the company’s fortunes.

The other major change was to upgrade the partial Fly-By-Wire on the E-Jet (open loop empennage FBW control with ailerons still controlled via steel wires) to a full three axis FBW with feedback control of flight laws. Embraer’s own team designs the flight laws and implement them in software. Upgrade to system and cabin amenities are also included in the E2 upgrades.

The E2 challenge; maturity

The largest change for the E2 program is not all these technical changes, declares Embraer’s Senior Program Manager Fernando Oliveira. The captive market for the E2 is Embraer’s existing E-Jet customers and they expect an aircraft which works right of the box. No more maturity issues at entry into service; they expect the E2 to go into their fleet and complement and eventually replace the original E-Jets without disturbances. This has totally changed how Embraer has structured the E2 program.

FBW testing

Figure 4. Fly-By-Wire laws for E2 is validated 2 years before first flight. Source: Embraer.

Suppliers have been retained or changed depending on how they can fulfill very stringent targets for in service maturity (ref. Engine selection). The program is planning to have run all systems in ground tests for 30.000 hours before first flight. The FBW system is already flying in virtual aircraft No. 1 which leaves two years for maturity work before first flight in 2016.


It remains to be seen how Embraer succeeds with their goal to achieve substantially higher in-service operational reliability at entry into service of E190-E2 in 2018 (then E195-E2 in 2019 and finally E175-E2 in 2020). Going through their efforts and mindset, there is no doubt they are trying hard and their reasoning and program actions bear a clear resemblance to Airbus A350 program.

We have elsewhere written about the challenge facing Embraer in the coming years, how to take the next step after the E2. This decision is less clear-cut then the E2 one, it will test the capability of Embraer of second guessing the market more then the decision that led to the E-jet E2.


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Exclusive: Airbus launches “A321neoLR” long range to replace 757-200W

Airbus has started marketing a long-range, higher gross weight version of the A321neo that it says will have 100nm more range than the Boeing 757-200W used on long range, trans-Atlantic routes, Leeham News and Comment has confirmed.

We learned three weeks ago Airbus was working on what we will call the A321neoLR (Long Range); Airbus doesn’t yet have a name for it, but began showing the details to airlines a week ago. The airplane is a higher gross weight aircraft, at 97 tonnes, and will have three auxiliary fuel tanks. With most long-range 757 configurations around 169 seats (United Airlines), the A321neoLR will have 164 seats, a slight loss, with 20 lie-flat business seats and the remainder in coach configuration.

Our analysis, which will be detailed in a Subscription post this week, comes very close to the Airbus specification.

Kiran Rao, EVP sales and marketing for Airbus. Photo: Airbus.

Kiran Rao, EVP sales and marketing for Airbus, confirmed the new model today. He said the A321neoLR will have a range of 3,900nm, or about 100nm more than the operational range of the 757W. (Advertised range is 4,100nm.) The additional fuel tanks add 400-500nm to the A321neo’s range, he said.

Intended markets are North America-trans-Atlantic, North American to South America, Europe to Africa and SE Asia to Australia. There are about 100 757-200Ws in operation and some 700-800 757s remaining in service.

The A321neoLR will have about 27% lower trip costs and 24% lower per seat costs than the 757, Rao told us. Overall, the LR will be about 25% less costly to operate, he said.

Entry into service is slated for the second half of 2018, about two years after the standard A321neo. Due to technical differences, the standard A321neo won’t be retrofittable into an LR standard, he said.

Helping the A321neoLR is the 2% fuel burn improvement Airbus contracted with Pratt & Whitney for the Geared Turbo Fan engine, which becomes available then. The LR will also be available with the CFM LEAP-1A.

“Maintenance costs will be lower than the 757. There will be lower navigation fees and lower engine costs,” Rao said. “[The A321neoLR] will be a very unique aircraft when compared with the [Boeing] 737-9, which has no development legs left in it.”

We will have our full, detailed economic analysis of the A321neo LR vs the 757 in Part 2 of this three part series this week. Part 1 appeared last week.

read more "Exclusive: Airbus launches “A321neoLR” long range to replace 757-200W"
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