How many airlines need over 9,000 miles range? The answer is very few. The following chart illustrates orders for the various 777 to date. (777X models excluded)
The LR model has 4% of orders or 59 frames. The market for the ultra long range aircraft is, simply, a small niche. This applies to to both Airbus and Boeing as the two tables illustrate. Only 9% of all A340s were of the ultra long range type. Looking at the customers for the 777LR one can see some are clearly VVIP. At every operator the LR is a sub fleet.
Which brings to the news about Etihad. Five of the Air India aircraft are being bought by Etihad. Etihad earlier this week announced its intent to serve Los Angeles from Abu Dhabi next summer. There are very few aircraft that handle its payload over that range and the LR is one of them.
It is rather interesting that the airline has four A340-500s in its fleet that could also handle the route. Consequently the decision to buy the LRs speaks volumes about the future of those A340-500s. Moreover, Air India has been trying to offload its LRs for some time. They are simply too much airplane for Air India. No doubt Etihad got a great deal plus quick delivery.
The bottom line is that there are few airlines which can deploy an aircraft with over 9,000 mile range. Even mighty Singapore Airlines found it cannot sustain the economics of ultra long routes. These flights are the quintessential niche.
Once Etihad has its five LRs, 41% of the current LR fleet will be based out of the Arabian Gulf with three airlines. It is these three airlines which are driving the desire for non-stop service to anywhere on the globe. It is also these three airlines that are pushing Airbus and Boeing for aircraft that can do this – always more range please. We expect to see Airbus and Boeing treat these requests (demands) with wariness.