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Fly Green

The Era of the Carbon-lite Plane

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Budget carriers like IndiGo and Virgin America are moving towards smaller planes that are easier to fill with both people and gas.

On 11 January, low-cost Indian carrier IndiGo made aviation history, signing a memorandum of understanding for the largest aircraft order ever: 150 fuel-efficient Airbus A320 Neo planes alongside 30 standard A320s.

The order capped a banner 2010 for the French aviation giant. Airbus trumped its US rival Boeing by securing a greater number of orders (574 vs 530) and delivering more planes (510 vs 462).

The primary reasons for Airbus’ advantage are innovations to its popular A320 line of aircrafts, which are narrow body planes that seat 100-250 passengers. The A320 Neo, as in ‘new engine option’, is more fuel efficient and eco-friendly than its predecessors the A320 and A319.  

This has helped Airbus secure both the IndiGo order and one more through Virgin America, which ordered another 30 units of the A320 Neo and 30 A320s. While it helps that the A320 Neo emits 3,600 fewer tonnes of CO2 per plane a year, it is likely that the $1.1 million per plane per year fuel savings motivated the purchase.

Airbus and Boeing account for more than 88 per cent of the planes sold in the narrow body commercial segment. Airbus’ new fuel standards in this lucrative segment are a potential problem for Boeing. “If Airbus is seen to have a more competitive product, it is highly unlikely that Boeing will do nothing. It cannot afford to cede a large share of the narrow body market,” says Binit Somaia, South Asian director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation.

The popularity of narrow body planes is emblematic of a paradigm shift in aviation. Although the airline industry, which ordered around 1,100 Airbus and Boeing planes in 2010, is strongly rebounding from the recession, “there exists one dark cloud on the horizon and that’s the price of fuel”, cautioned Airbus COO John Leahy during a recent press conference.

As a result, budget carriers like IndiGo and Virgin America are moving towards smaller planes that are easier to fill with both people and gas.  “Manufacturers have been feeling pressure from airlines to deliver lower cost solutions,” says Somaia, citing the A320 Neo as an example.  

Of course, with so many low-cost airlines pushing a hip customer experience alongside lower seat prices, there is pressure to reduce their carbon footprint and project a greener image. “Addressing the environmental impact of their operations would be the concern of all airlines in the future,” says Bharat Bhushan, Director General of Civil Aviation, India.