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Inside Air India’s 470 aircraft order: A deep-dive

Air India yesterday made headlines around the world for ordering 470 aircraft, split between Airbus and Boeing. Let’s take a deep-dive into this order and try to understand the airline’s plans better.

Air India yesterday official announced an order for 470 aircraft, with options for 70 more. This is the largest order placed by any airline across the world in the history of aviation.

The airline has placed an order for the following aircraft:

  • 140 Airbus A320neos
  • 70 Airbus A321neos
  • 6 Airbus A350-900s
  • 34 Airbus A350-1000s
  • 190 Boeing B737MAXs (split between the -8 and the longer -10 variant)
  • 20 Boeing B787-9 Dreamliners
  • 10 Boeing B777-9s

The announcement for 250 Airbus aircraft came in the afternoon while that for Boeing came in the evening. The Airbus order was announced virtually in a video conference while the Boeing order was officially announced by The White House of the United States of America.

Air India is on a large transformation journey across safety, customer service, technology, engineering, network and human resources. Modern, efficient fleet is a fundamental component of this transformation. This order is an important step in realising Air India’s ambition, articulated in its Vihaan.AI transformation program, to offer a world class proposition serving global travellers with an Indian heart. These new aircraft will modernise the Airline’s fleet and onboard product, and dramatically expand its global network. The growth enabled by this order will also provide unparalleled career opportunities for Indian aviation professionals and catalyse accelerated development of the Indian aviation ecosystem.

said N. Chandrasekaran, Chairman of Tata Sons and Air India.

The first of the new aircraft will enter service in late-2023, with the bulk to arrive from mid-2025 onwards. In the interim, Air India has already started taking delivery of 11 leased B777 and 25 A320 aircraft to accelerate its fleet and network expansion.

The acquisition of new aircraft, which will come with an entirely new cabin interior, complements Air India’s previously announced plan to refit its existing widebody B787 and B777 aircraft with new seats and inflight entertainment systems. The first of these refitted aircraft will enter service in mid-2024.

On the path to become a world class airline

Air India’s transformation plan “Vihaan.AI”, which will help the airline in becoming world-class that will be able to compete with the best of the best, includes one major component: modernisation of fleet.

Air India’s current fleet is ageing very fast. The airline’s order book had exhausted and in order to achieve better economics, the induction of fuel-efficient aircraft was the need of the hour. With this order, the airline finally has a plan in place and we now have a idea of how Air India’s fleet will look like in the coming years.

Engine manufacturers: the real winners

While Airbus and Boeing have secured large orders, the real winners in this deal are the engine manufacturers. The airline’s A350 aircraft will be powered by Rolls-Royce engines, and the B777/787s by engines from GE Aerospace. All single-aisle aircraft will be powered by engines from CFM International.

Rolls Royce:

The A350 aircraft is exclusively powered by Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-84 and XWB-97 engines. The former powers the A350-900 version while the latter powers the larger A350-1000 version.

Air India, as part of this deal, has placed an order for 68 Trent XWB-97 engines, plus options for 20 more. This is the biggest ever order for the Trent XWB-97. Air India has also ordered 12 Trent XWB-84 engines for its 6 Airbus A350-900s.

Airbus A350 in Air India’s livery. Photo: Airbus

As this is the first time that an Indian carrier has ordered A350 aircraft, it is also the first time that an Indian airline has ordered the Trent XWB and the deal will make Air India the largest operator of the Trent XWB-97 in the world.

Today’s announcement marks an exciting and truly remarkable occasion for Tata Group and Air India; the size and magnitude of this order reflects the level of their ambition for the future. I congratulate them on taking this bold step towards becoming one of the world’s greatest airlines and I would like to thank them for putting their trust in Rolls-Royce to power them on this journey. Air India is the first Indian airline to order the Trent XWB and the size of the commitment, including options, will make them the biggest operator of the Trent XWB-97 in the world. With a dynamic and growing aviation industry, India is a strategically important market for us and we look forward to working with Air India as they connect their passengers across global communities and cultures.

said Tufan Erginbilgic, CEO, Rolls-Royce.

Rolls Royce states that there are options for 20 additional Trent XWB-97 engines, indicating that Air India has options for 10 more A350-1000s, in addition to the firm order of 34 of those.

General Electric:

For its 20 B787-9s and 10 B777-9s, Air India has signed a firm order for 40 GEnx-1B and 20 GE9X engines respectively. The deal also includes a multi-year TrueChoice engine services agreement.

Boeing B737MAX, B787-9 and B777-9 in Air India’s livery. Photo: Boeing

We are proud to continue our longstanding partnership with Tata Group and Air India. We look forward to working together to introduce these engines into Air India’s fleet and are committed to ensuring they deliver exceptional performance.

said H. Lawrence Culp, Jr., Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of GE and CEO of GE Aerospace.

Over the last decade, we have introduced a new portfolio of commercial engines that are significantly more fuel efficient, quieter, and emit less CO2. This record order reflects our strong product renewal and our customer’s continued confidence in our engines.

said Russell Stokes, President and CEO, Commercial Engines and Services for GE Aerospace.

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CFM International:

CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between GE Aerospace and Safran Aircraft Engines, has secured a firm order for 800 CFM engines, including 420 CFM Leap-1A engines (which powers the Airbus A320neo family aircraft) and 380 CFM Leap-1B engines (which powers the Boeing B737MAX family aircraft). The deal also includes options for spare engines and a CFM services contract.

Airbus A321neo in Air India’s livery. Photo: Airbhs

We appreciate Air India selecting CFM for this milestone order and are proud to continue our longstanding partnership. With the LEAP engine under wing, Air India will be able to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions across its narrowbody fleet.

said H. Lawrence Culp, Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of GE and CEO of CFM parent company GE Aerospace.

While the B737MAX aircraft are exclusively powered by Leap-1B engines, Air India has chosen CFM Leap-1A engines over Pratt and Whitney engines for its A320neo aircraft. This may be because the Pratt and Whitney engines have been facing some or the other issues and recently, supply chain issues too. So CFM Leap-1A engines was the way to go.

Airbus A320neo, A321neo and A350-900/-1000 in Air India’s livery. Photo: Airbus

We are very honored by Air India’s renewed trust in CFM. This historic order is enabling Air India to sustain continued growth and play an important role in the economic development of India. Through our current and future facilities as well as local partnerships, we are fully committed to supporting production and aftermarket activities of the LEAP engine in India.

said Olivier Andriès, Chief Executive Officer, Safran Aircraft Engines.

Why both Airbus and Boeing?

Choosing the perfect aircraft is no easy task. It requires months and months of thinking and negotiations and then only is an airline able to choose the perfect aircraft. While ordering aircraft from two different manufacturers increases fleet complexity, it’s always better to do that in these type of cases when an airline is placing such a large aircraft order.

While there’s no harm in sticking to one aircraft type, an airline can face trouble whenever that particular aircraft type faces fleet-wide grounding (like the one which happened with B737MAXs) or any other issues.

Ordering aircraft from two different manufacturers also has another benefit. It’s not always easy to get an early delivery slot for new aircraft to be delivered, as both Airbus’ and Boeing’s delivery backlog list is very long. Bulk of Air India’s new aircraft will start coming in from mid-2025. This timeline is when the airline has ordered both Airbus and Boeing aircraft, so you can imagine what the time could have been had the airline ordered aircraft from only one manufacturer.

Fleet complexity?

By the next decade, Air India will have the following aircraft models in its fleet:

  • Airbus A319 (if those stick around for that long)
  • Airbus A320ceo/neo
  • Airbus A321ceo/neo
  • Airbus A350
  • Boeing B737MAX (it’s not yet clear whether these aircraft will go to Air India or its low-cost subsidiary AIX Connect)
  • Boeing B787-8/-9
  • Boeing B777-200LR (if those stick around for that long)
  • Boeing B777-300ER
  • Boeing B777-9

Now, that is a very long list. Product standardisation across the fleet will be a major issue that Air India will face in the future, something which will require millions of dollars of investment. While the new aircraft may come with standardised products and B787-8s & B777-300ERs set to be refurbished, it will be important for Air India to install those products on A319s, A320ceos and A321ceos, if those are going to be around for the next several years.

Fleet complexity will also be a very big issue. However, that may become a strong point. The airline will be available to deploy the right-sized aircraft for the right market.

Vistara integration

Vistara is set to merged with Air India by March 2024, with Singapore Airlines keeping a 25.1% stake in the merged entity. The involvement of a renowned-carrier like Singapore Airlines gives me hope for Air India’s turnaround.

After the merger and with this order, Air India will have a fleet of close to 600 aircraft, out of which close to 100 will be wide-body aircraft. Together with Vistara’s small but strong international network, Air India may be able to get a strong hold in the international market.

Also, Air India has not yet revealed which of these new aircraft will go to which airline, whether to the merged full-service entity Air India or whether to the merged low-cost entity AIX Connect. We will surely know that in due course of time.

Air India has created history, with the order being the largest one in the history of aviation. I am excited for the bright future of Air India (hopefully!). Here’s wishing Air India all the best for its future and let’s hope Air India makes us proud on a global level.

Featured image by Airbus and Boeing

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