Travel isn't expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, suggests the International Air Transport Association – but as we once again take to the skies, those trips are increasingly likely to be made in the comfort of the latest business class seats and even first class suites, which will in turn be gracing modern aircraft.
Faced with an unprecedented slump in demand, airlines are in 'shrink to survive' mode.
This includes downsizing their fleets and in the process retiring many older aircraft whose high maintenance costs and thirst for fuel are a drag on the balance sheet.
Even the mighty Airbus A380 has proven a liability, as its profitability depends on filling seats across its two decks at a time when few people are travelling.
Over the coming years, as demand resumes and airlines move into post-pandemic recovery mode, their fleets will be reshaped around younger and more environmentally-friendly jets – with a tilt towards similarly fresh business class seats.
"Airlines worldwide are retiring older aircraft more quickly than they planned," says Dr Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX).
"Overall, this is good news for customers that are fans of next-generation business class and first class. Older aircraft that have legacy hard products are the ones most likely to be retired."
Picking the right jets for the job
This also comes with a re-think of routes and the aircraft used to fly them.
"Fleet planning teams around the world will be studying routes, payloads and anticipated yields, against the aircraft type, age and efficiency," explains Peter Tennent, Director of London-based Factorydesign, which has crafted seats and interiors for the likes of Delta, Virgin Atlantic and Etihad.
"Many grounded, older and less efficient aircraft may never make it back."
The past few months have seen Qantas, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic scupper their remaining Boeing 747-400s, with Lufthansa now expected to follow suit. Less glamourous workhorses like the Airbus A340 series have also been axed or are staring down the barrel.
"The industry’s interest, pre-COVID, in narrow-body long-range aircraft was already out-stripping twin-aisle aircraft, so we must wonder whether the current circumstances will see an acceleration of that move towards smaller, more efficient, long-range aircraft."
Such a shift would favour the Airbus A321LR and especially the A321XLR, which the European manufacturer intends to launch in 2023.
Qantas has inked a deal for up to 36 of the A321XLR jets, due for delivery from mid-2024, as one of many launch customers.
Qatar Airways is promising a 'mini-Qsuite' business class for its own A321neo and A321LR fleet due in 2022, resulting in a step-change from the dated 2-2 business class of the Gulf carrier's workhorse Airbus A320 fleet, which the factory-fresh jets will replace.
For longer flights, coming out of COVID-19 will see airlines favour their newest, most fuel-efficient jets – think Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s – most of which already sport the latest business class products.
"Airlines worldwide will emerge from this with a much more environmentally-friendly, younger, and more refined airline fleet," states APEX chief Leader. "That means that the premium long-haul products will be consistently stronger."
Locally, Qantas doesn't expect to see any of its 12 Airbus A380s – six of which still have the old Skybed II business class seats – return from their desert storage until 2023 or 2024, which means the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and its latest Business Suite design will become the airline's new international flagship.
“The 787s will be the right aircraft coming out of COVID, because it will give us a very broad network with a good mix of premium cabins, and allows us to operate routes that avoid stopovers like Perth to London and Perth to Paris, which we think there’ll be an even a bigger business case for doing post-COVID," suggests Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.
There's also an increasing likelihood that Qantas' suspended order for the Airbus A350-1000 will not only usher in the ultra-long range Project Sunrise flights but also see a larger A350 order replace the A380s.
"It is my every intent that when we can get Qantas back into flying, when we can turn the business around, that we will be doing Project Sunrise," Joyce has said.
“We will at the appropriate time, when we’ve helped fix our balance sheet, look at ordering those aircraft, and I’m very keen – not many people will be ordering aircraft probably when Qantas is, so there will be opportunities for us to get even better deals than we did in the past. This is a good time for airlines that can afford it, to position themselves for the future."
The Qantas Airbus A350s would also mark the debut of new-design first class suites, business class and premium economy seats and even a wider economy seat with a few extra inches of legroom.
Joyce previously said the airline had completed the design of the A350's cabin configuration, with the aim of "redefining" all four travel classes from tip to tail.
Even with cash-strapped airlines placing the delivery of new aircraft including the long-awaited Boeing 777X on hold, once those jets begin to arrive they'll also be replete with fresh business class seats and in some cases first class suites.
Additional material by Brandon Loo