The downturn in air traffic is leading to a major makeover in air carriers' fleets. Flight capacity demand among cargo and passenger carriers has deteriorated faster than expected, according to the IATA (International Air Transport Association). While some 1,400-plus aircraft are slated for delivery in 2009 - most from Boeing and Airbus - Airbus has announced it will slow its production lines and Boeing is saying it expects delivery deferrals and cancellations to rise this year.
Air cargo shipments worldwide dipped by 23 percent in December 2008: the January and February numbers are expected to be worse. Passenger demand continues to fall, yield numbers are declining, and premium travelers are increasingly switching to economy class.
Airlines have responded to the drop in revenue by further cutting capacity and making even broader, deeper cuts in fares. What we're seeing now is a much more systematic reduction of fares across airlines' entire schedules. Airlines are becoming increasingly innovative in their efforts to slash operating costs. They're also adopting a la carte business models that let passengers choose they services they want.
Capacity cuts are happening because corporate America is making its own drastic cutbacks in travel policies. At many companies, a business traveler has to make a clear case that travel is necessary to keep current clients or develop new business. Meantime, audio, video, and web conferencing are becoming the preferred alternative to hopping a plane. With business trips under heavy scrutiny, air carriers are not the only travel providers feeling the pinch; hotels, rental car companies, and so on down the supply chain, are stepping up their marketing efforts to build business in the face of a global travel slowdown.
For those of us who are still traveling, hopes that some of the older aircraft, like the MD-80, would be headed to the scrap heap - or at least to the "bone yards" of California's Mojave desert for mothballing - are on hold. The airlines' cuts or deferrals in orders for new aircraft will delay that process.
Still, if new aircraft are not coming on-stream as fast as business travelers would have hoped, the slide in air travel has grounded a lot of older jets. In fact 2008 was the worst year for groundings since 2001, with nearly 2,300 planes now parked in deserts around the globe. That's more than 11 percent of the world's operational jets. At least another 400 will be parked or decommissioned this year.
Road warriors spend enough time hopping airplanes to develop a distinct set of preferences, often revolving around comfort, but also on-time performance and general reliability, e.g. we dislike planes whose entertainment systems are prone to frequent failure.
If I had to name a favorite plane for business travel, it might be the 777, although I also like the 767. The 737 is okay, but I'm not crazy about the 757; it's pretty uncomfortable. I would say the same about the MD-80. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing all of the MD-80s retired.
Sure, the MD-80 is built like a tank and its performance characteristics aren't bad. It's just not at the top of my list when it comes to cabin comfort. I do like the fact that the engines are all the way in the rear, which makes for a quieter ride - unless, of course, your seat assignment is at the back of the bus. I should point out that there are five models of MC-80 aircraft, so there are differences. The "Super 80" incorporated significant improvements over previous models.
While the gas-guzzling MD-80s, DC-9s, and older 737s are slowly coming out of service, what business travelers would like to see is those older planes replaced by state-of-the-art jets like Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which it seems we've been waiting for forever. Of course, if rumors are accurate that airlines like Qantas will be deferring deliveries of the 787, we'll have to wait a while longer.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com