The Daily Flyer

Welcome to the third edition of “The Daily Flyer,” The Higher Flyer‘s daily newsletter gathering up and summarizing some of the day’s most important happenings in the world of airlines, hotels, award points, and other travel-related things.  Today’s feature — for February 13, 2020 — explores how Boeing’s tumultuous year indirectly benefits higher flyers, as well as some exciting oneworld news and surprising new American Airlines routes.  Today was a big day!

Header image courtesy of Oleg Belyakov; accessed on Wikipedia.

Headline News

Wanna see an old The Higher Flyer post that hasn’t aged well over the past few years?  If yes, click here to check out “Analyzing the 737 MAX in the contemporary aviation industry.”  The banner subheader asks if this plane represents the future of air travel, and the remaining 1,300 words are devoted to explaining how and why this single model will reshape the industry.  Suffice to say, the article’s lofty predictions haven’t exactly come true in the nearly three years since its June 25, 2017 publishing date.  The 737 MAX’s manufacturer, Boeing, has been having a really, really rough go at it.

It’s easy to attribute the two tragic accidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia as the reasons why Boeing is struggling today, but the reality goes far deeper than these.  Yes, Boeing is in the middle of a reputation crisis, and yes, these crashes did a lot of damage to the brand’s image.  These incidents led to a global grounding of the 737 MAX — they’re not allowed to fly anywhere in the world — and they’ve instigated close reviews of the manufacturer’s operations.  The results of such have been damning, and Boeing has since fired and hired a new CEO, share prices have plummeted, and consumer confidence is at an all time low.  It’s not uncommon to hear people vowing to never fly a Boeing aircraft again.  Indeed, the company failed to receive a single order for airplanes in January 2020.

But, in the decade leading up to these crashes in late-2018 and early-2019, Boeing committed a few crucial errors.  It introduced a revolutionary and innovative longhaul plane, the 787 Dreamliner, only for it to bungle its launch.  Many of the first Dreamliners were built with faulty batteries that were prone to catching on fire; that didn’t exactly make for good optics.  A recall and grounding was staged, but that didn’t end all problems with the plane.  Nowadays, many 787s suffer engine problems so severe that they must be decommissioned (temporarily) for maintenance.

Boeing meanwhile didn’t commit to developing a successor to its wildly-successful-but-aging 757 model after it ceased its production in 2005.  And of course, instead of totally rebuilding the 737 to update it to contemporary standards, it took the easy route and simply built on top of the original, near-50-year-old airframe.  These issues, taken collectively, have contributed to Boeing’s downward spiral.

737 MAX
This plane shown here has caused quite a bit of problems for Boeing, and it could be a while before it gets back in the skies.

Airbus, Boeing’s primary (and only) rival, has been trending positively in the opposite direction.  It started the 2010s fully invested in its A380 program — which was already struggling to sell, despite a relatively recent entrance in to commercial service — and it desperately needed to innovate in order to stay competitive.  While its A350 initially looked like a copycat of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, it had the advantage of learning from the Dreamliner’s mistakes.  A350s don’t catch on fire like Dreamliners did, nor do they have the same engine problems.  Airbus also spent the the decade redesigning its older aircraft to offer fuel efficiency standards far superior to the predecessors.  The company has unsurprisingly received thousands of orders for these new planes, and now dominates the mid-range market formerly occupied by the Boeing 757.  And of course, Airbuses aren’t equipped with faulty autopilot systems like 737 MAXes are.

It’s not looking good for Boeing right now, but it going out of business is still unlikely.  Boeing is still the biggest manufacturer of commercial aircraft in the world, and it benefits even further from indirect subsidization from the United States government (in the form of tax breaks and incentives).  Nothing is ever too big to fail, but Boeing nears that level.  If anything though, the past decade has been a wake up call for the company; it can no longer rest on its laurels, and indeed, Boeing is rushing to thoroughly right the ship.  It’s prioritizing getting its 737 MAXes airborne again.  Once that’s taken care of, perhaps the swirling rumors of a successor to the 757 will become more tangible.  And, in the more immediate future, a brand new 777 model will take to the skies.  It made its first flight a few weeks ago, and results have been positive thus far.  If all three meet their potential, then air travel will be fundamentally changed.  Need more convincing?  Consider reading something that some may consider a relic:  “Analyzing the 737 MAX in the contemporary aviation industry.”

A future of success isn’t guaranteed for Boeing, but the competition from Airbus should inspire it to produce better products.  Hopefully it can spend the next decade working to exceed the expectations set before it now, and ultimately return to its old status of being the world’s premier aircraft manufacturer.  Should Boeing rise to this challenge, higher flyers will win too; they’ll benefit from more comfortable, more safe, and more efficient travel that was previously thought to be impossible.  There’s still hope, but it requires Boeing to be a leader again.  Let’s root for its success on this mission.

TDF February 13 2020 Boeing 777x
This huge, very-efficient 777 just made its first flight… and it could represent a new future for heavy long haul travel.

Other happenings in the world of higher flying

1.  Alaska Airlines is going to join oneworld!!!

In an announcement that surprised pretty much everyone, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines revealed that they will be expanding their relationship and, more importantly, Alaska will also be joining the oneworld alliance.  This all came out of left field — AA and Alaska damn-near cut ties last year — and this move looks like, at face value, like a counter to Delta’s growth in Seattle, and a response to Delta poaching LATAM from oneworld.  These developments are nevertheless welcome and exciting.

Now comes the hard part:  waiting for the rollout.  While the joint partnership will come in to fruition over the next few months — elite benefits and award redemptions will be reciprocated between the two — Alaska won’t formally enter oneworld until summer 2021.  That’s when the real fun starts.  Oh well though, good things come to those who wait, and this appears to be a huge victory for higher flyers.  Let’s see what happens; in separate posts, Gary from View From The Wing assesses the business side of the deal, and Ben from One Mile At A Time examines the miles and points implications.  Both articles are worth a read.

TDF February 13 2020 Alaska Air
Alaska Airlines has all the reasons to smile right now; so do lots of higher flyers!

Sourced directly from a joint press release from Alaska and American (both link to the same text).

2.  American Airlines will expand its presence in Seattle and add flights from there to London and to… Bangalore (?)

While the resurrected partnership between American and Alaska — and the latter’s future entrance in to oneworld — made the most headlines, there was another curious reveal:  AA will be launching international flights from Seattle.  It’s starting small with two routes, with one being to London, and the other being to Bangalore, India.  The first makes perfect sense; fellow oneworld member British Airways operates two flights per day between the cities.  It wouldn’t be a problem for AA to take over one of those BA legs, and that’s what appears will happen (although this hasn’t been confirmed yet).  Bangalore initially raises a few eyebrows though.  AA doesn’t have any regional partners on the other end, so it’ll be at a disadvantage when it needs to fill its planes (because it won’t benefit from any India-based connecting passengers), and, more glaringly, AA doesn’t operate any other direct flights to India.  Wouldn’t Delhi or Mumbai be better starting places?  You’d think so, but they probably aren’t.  Bangalore is India’s tech hub and now, thanks to American, there’ll be a direct flight from Amazon’s and Microsoft’s headquarters.  This could be quite lucrative actually!

TDF February 13 2020 Bangalore
American Airlines will soon offer direct flights here from Seattle; go figure!  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sourced from the same joint press release cited in the previous blurb.

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