British Airways will take delivery of its first Boeing 787-10 this week, but the Dreamliner will fly into an uncertain future.
In ordinary times, there'd be a handful of BA executives, PR minders and invited media on board the factory-fresh Boeing 787-10 when she lifted off from Boeing's facility at Charleston, South Carolina.
There'd be more media plus a legion of flag-waving BA staff to greet the aircraft when it touched down at London's Heathrow Airport around 8am on Thursday May 21 (those times, advised by BA sources, are as always subject to change).
And, a few weeks later, this first of 12 Boeing 787-10s would carry paying passengers on the inaugural commercial flight to Atlanta, a return to her roots in the deep south.
But these are far from ordinary times. The global grip of the coronavirus has hit airlines hard, and British Airways enjoys no exception. Most of its fleet is grounded and most of its routes suspended, waiting for an unsteady recovery to take uncertain shape. Parent IAG says it doesn’t expect passenger demand to recover to 2019 levels for "several years."
“Some of us have worked in aviation through the global financial crisis, the Sars outbreak and 9/11,” British Airways CEO Alex Cruz told staff in the message entitled The Survival of British Airways.
"What is happening right now as a result of Covid-19 is more serious than any of these events. It is a crisis of global proportions like no other we have known."
The airline will slash its workforce by almost 30%, culling up to 12,000 jobs in a painful restructuring aimed at shrinking the airline group as it settled in for a prolonged downturn.
New aircraft deliveries delayed
Aircraft deliveries are also being pushed back, but some already paid for will see the jets used to raise money to top up liquidity at a time when cash burn is a primary concern.
"Given that a number of aircraft are already financed from a cash point of view it makes sense for us to take the aircraft because we will have paid pre-delivery payments, so when we take the aircraft and then put the financing in place, there is actually a cash-benefit to us," IAG chief executive Willie Walsh remarked last month at the airline's first quarter results briefing.
Across its four airlines – British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia and Vueling – IAG still plan to take nine long-range aircraft in 2021, a number that's likely to include at least some of the first six Boeing 787-10s initially slated for 2020, along with some Airbus A350s.
However, IAG will almost halve its 2021 delivery schedule from 17 aircraft down to nine – a tally that's expected to include British Airways' first Boeing 777-9 jets.
”I think when we look at our fleet plan, we have seen a very significant shift in what the plan was when we announced it in November last year to what it will be for 2021 and 2022, and you do need to factor in the flexibility we have with the existing fleet and leased aircraft,” Walsh said.
With the arrival of the 787-10, itself delayed from a previous January hand-over, British Airways will become one of the handful of airlines in the world to fly all three flavours of the Dreamliner: it already has a dozen of the original 787-8 plus 16 of the larger and longer-range 787-9.
Unlike the Airbus A350s, BA's super-stretched Boeing 787-10 is fitted with eight first class suites, using the same design as on the 787-9 (a suite which the airline internally refers to as the 'Prime' product).
British Airways is moving towards standardising on a 'sweet spot' of eight First suites across its Boeing 787 and 777 fleet, in a trend away from larger first class cabins in favour of more business class seats.
And when it comes to business class, the Boeing 787-10 of course sports BA's latest business class Club Suites, with 48 of the premium pews – which, ironically, are more private that their first class counterparts – spread across two cabins. That's followed by 35 World Traveller Plus premium economy seats and 165 World Traveller economy seats, while there's also WiFi from tip to tail.