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Just this week British Airways released a photo of its first Airbus A350 aircraft, fully painted, and soon to be in service. It’s always a cool moment when an airline receives the first of a new aircraft type.

But what perplexes me about this addition to the British Airways fleet is that the A350 is joining a host of other long-haul aircraft. British Airways currently operates four other long-haul planes: the Boeing 747-400, the Boeing 777, the Airbus A380, and the Boeing 787. Looking even further ahead…British Airways will also be purchasing the 777X. That makes six different wide-body aircraft types. And it’s not like they have one variant of each, as they have both 787-8s and 9s (plus 10s on order), 777-200 (and the ER version), 777-300ERs, etc.

The last of the 767s just retired, which I have to assume were replaced by the 787-8, the aircraft closest in size. The oddest decision to me was the choice to order a bunch of A350s.

Why operate both the A350 and the 787?

This seems as odd choice to me, as the aircraft have a lot of similarities in terms of range and size. They are often billed as direct competitors. Not many airlines have chosen to operate both aircraft. As an example, United has gone all in with the 787, operating all three variants, while Delta added the A350-900 as its new flagship (and has no plans to operate the 787).

What I’d forgotten, however, are the ways the A350 and 787 differ, and these differences are critical enough to justify using both for many carriers, as British Airways has chosen to do. Other carriers that operate variants of both the 787 and A350 include Virgin Atlantic, Air China, China Eastern and Singapore Airlines.

In British Airways’ case, they’ve opted for the A350-1000, which is the biggest of the bunch. Boeing doesn’t make a 787 of a similar size. The A350-1000 seats 30-40 more passengers than the largest 787, and also more than the typical 777-200. It does fall short of the 777-300ER capacity, however.

The A350 also falls short of the typical 747-400 seating capacity, but not when you compare it to the typical British Airways layout. British Airways offers a premium-heavy configuration on basically all of its 747-400s. Two of the variations transport fewer than 300 passengers. Contrast this with a capacity of ~450 passengers for Virgin Atlantic’s remaining 747-400s. The BA variant that does offer a higher capacity falls perfectly in line with the capacity of the A350. Given the fuel efficiency and range of the new bird, the A350 will (sadly) make an excellent replacement for the Queen of the Skies.

Officially, the 777-9 will be replacing the 747-400s. But I can’t help but see how the A350-1000 is nearly as good of a fit especially on routs with a lower load factor. With such a variety of long-haul aircraft, British Airways should be able to maintain a high load factor across its routes by tailoring the operating aircraft to demand.

In any case, the real winner with the launch of the British Airways A350-1000 is the swanky new business class, a much needed breath of fresh air for a carrier with a very tired business class product.

Conclusion

At first I thought this was an odd choice for Britain’s flag carrier, but the long-term plan does seem solid. There are definite downsides to operating a large variety of aircraft, but there are also potential upsides. If a defect or failure (the 787 engine issues come to mind), it won’t cripple your operations while you address it. Not all of your eggs are in one basket.

What are your thoughts on British Airways operating quite the variety of long-haul aircraft?

Boeing 787-8 photo courtesy of Mark Harkin via Flickr under CC-BY-2.0 license


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