Executive Traveller exclusive
For a little plane, the Airbus A220 is going to have an outsize impact on Qantas and travellers when the first of the nimble jets dressed in Flying Kangaroo livery arrives at the end of 2023.
Alongside the Airbus A321XLR, the A220 is part of a sweeping multi-billion dollar renewal of Qantas’ domestic fleet – although both jets are also expected to fly short-range international routes to New Zealand and Asia.
The Airbus A220 will primarily replace the ageing Boeing 717 on regional QantasLink routes, as well as darting between capital cities, so Qantas passengers can expect to see a lot of the A220 as the years roll on.
But while the Airbus A321XLR and its siblings in the A320neo family are, broadly speaking, similar to the Boeing 737 they’ll replace, the Airbus A220 represents a quantum leap from the Boeing 717 in every measure.
“The A220 is the world’s most modern, small, single-aisle aircraft,” says Connor Buott, Marketing Manager for Airbus’ single-aisle jets such as the A220 and A320 families, who spoke exclusively with Executive Traveller following the announcement of Qantas’ order.
“It's really a state-of-the-art design inside and out, both in terms of the technology that it has on board and in terms of the level of passenger comfort. It's unparalleled.”
The A220 is unique in being a ‘clean sheet’ plane designed from scratch, rather than being based on long-standing aircraft frame, such as the case with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families.
This is because the A220 was developed not by Airbus, but Canadian business jet manufacturer Bombardier.
In a bold gamble to reimagine the regional jet, Bombardier created what it called the C Series: the first completely new single-aisle airplane in its segment in over 40 years.
Airbus cannily acquired a majority share in the C Series program in 2018, rebranding the jet as the A220 to complement its existing portfolio, and it quickly became a favourite of many airlines around the world.
Breaking down the Qantas A220 order
Qantas’ initial Airbus A220 order is for 20 of the larger A220-300 model, which carries slightly more passengers over longer distances than the smaller A220-100.
However, the airline holds what are called 'purchase right options’ – which combine a firm price with preferred access to delivery timeframes – to buy additional A220s in either or both versions, “giving Qantas a fleet mix that can deliver better network choices and route economics.”
Between the A220-100 and A220-300, Qantas will have the “flexibility to deploy these aircraft throughout most of its domestic and regional operations.”
“They could be used during off peak times between major cities and on key regional routes to increase frequency.”
Those first 20 A220-300s will serve as a direct replacement for Qantas’ 20 Boeing 717s, which have an average age of almost 20 years.
Where Qantas will fly the A220
Expect to see the Qantas A220s flying anywhere its Boeing 717s and Embraer E-Jets are seen today. That ranges from regional centres to Canberra, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Adelaide.
But the A220’s substantially longer reach spans most of Australia, meaning the jet can be easily swung between regional and intercity domestic routes – and beyond.
“The A220 is such a versatile aircraft which has become popular with airline customers in the United States and Europe because it has the capability to fly regional routes as well as longer sectors between capital cities,” explained Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce.
“For customers, that means having more departures throughout the day on smaller aircraft, or extra capacity at peak time with larger (A320neo-series) aircraft, or the ability to start a new regional route because the economics of the aircraft make it possible.”
As Qantas chief financial officer Vanessa Hudson put it, the A220s “have double the range of the 717s, so you could see us being able to operate a 220 between Brisbane and Broome, Perth-Brisbane, Adelaide up into north Queensland.”
As an example, Air Canada flies its A220-300s on the hour-long dash between Toronto and Montreal, as well as the six-hour journey from Montreal to Los Angeles.
The 6,300km range of the A220-300 also brings New Zealand and much of South-East Asia under its wing, bringing the possibility of several new international routes between cities where there’s currently not enough demand to host a larger Boeing 737.
This could even include flights to Asia from Adelaide – a city that’s long been left off Qantas’ international map – while Perth’s A220 radius encompasses Bali, Jakarta, Bangkok, Phuket, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Phnom Penh.
“We talk a lot about the versatility of the A220 when we're pitching it to airlines,” reveals Airbus exec Buott .
“You have Korean Air with A220s doing very, very short sectors, an average of only about 30 minutes; and then you have AirBaltic, Delta Air Lines, Air Canada and JetBlue, who are doing much longer flights.”
“So the A220 is perfectly well suited as a regional aircraft, to do short domestic networks, but it has that longer range capability and the comfort to make the aircraft acceptable to passengers on those longer flights.”
The Qantas A220 seatmap
The Qantas A220 will accommodate 137 passengers – an uptick of 25% over the Boeing 717 – with ten seats in business class and 127 in economy.
That’s the same number of seats as Air Canada’s A220s and only slightly more than the 130-seat version flown by Delta Air Lines, which has three rows of Comfort+ extra legroom economy seats sandwiched between business and economy.
But at least the Qantas A220 will have business class, and a proper business class sat that: Latvia’s AirBaltic settled on 145 economy seats, with the first few rows set up on a ‘Euro-business’ model with some seats blocked by a plastic shroud.
Qantas A220 business class
The Qantas A220-300 will feature ten seats in business class, grouped in two-seat pairs as is common on most single-aisle jets – which means two rows of 2-2 and a third ‘half-row’ of two seats.
“The business seats, from my understanding, will be staggered,” says Airbus’ Buott, “so you would have three rows on one side and two rows on the other.”
“But Qantas may still continue to tweak their configuration,” he allows, adding “I’ve seen some configurations with staggered business class rows, and others where you use of the extra space on the side that has the smaller number of rows for a galley, wardrobes, things like that.”
In short, we won’t know exactly how the business class cabin will be laid out until Qantas publishes its official A220-300 business class seatmap.
A220 business class seats are typically 21” wide – about one inch more than their equivalents on the Qantas Boeing 717, and an inch less than on the Boeing 737.
As to the Qantas A220 business class seats themselves, airlines buying the A220 can choose between a standard seat supplied and fitted ‘off the rack’ or select a model from any Airbus-approved supplier.
Airbus’ go-to business class seat is the Safran model Z600 (shown below), with the Z110i in economy.
These two Safran models “were specifically chosen for the A220 because they make full use of the A220 cabin’s width,” Buott explains, “and of course we work with a large number of seat manufacturers to certify different seats and explore new seat concepts.”
While Qantas hasn’t yet specified which seats it’s chosen for the A220, US airline Breeze opted for a customised Safran Z600 in its sizeable A220 premium cabin – and there’d certainly be no whinging if Qantas installed the wide, comfortable and well-appointed Z600 for its own A220 business class.
Qantas A220 economy class
The Qantas A220-300s will have 127 economy seats, arranged with two seats on one side of the aisle and three on the other: expect 25 rows of 2-3 seating plus a single block of two seats, and a kink in the aisle between the business and economy cabins.
Buott calls out the Safran model Z110i economy seat for “a reshaped seatback that really maximise the passenger’s personal space.”
One quirk of this standard Airbus A220 economy layout is that the dreaded middle seat of the ‘triples’ – the rows of three seats – is slightly wider than its neighbours.
“The typical economy seat is over 18 inches wide, but the middle seat is 19 inches,” Buott elaborates.
“This was a deliberate choice by the designers, to give that little bit of extra to that middle seat, and try to make it the most comfortable seat in the aeroplane.”
(By comparison, economy seats on the Qantas Boeing 717 are 17-18 inches wide, with the Boeing 737 at 17.2”.)
However, it’s not known if Qantas has gone with for this particular A220-300 configuration.
“Some airlines have opted for a seating configuration which make all seats the same width and adds that extra half-inch to the aisle instead,” Buott says.
“The slightly larger aisle has a little bit more space for the cabin at attendants, allows you to get two trolleys through the aisle, one past the other, and helps with the airline’s turnaround times as well.”
Qantas is expected to fit seatback video screens from tip to tail, and we’d be surprised if the A220 economy seats didn’t come with individual USB sockets and shared AC outlets.
What it’ll be like to fly on the Qantas A220
If you’ve ever flown on an Airbus A350, stepping on board the Qantas A220 will carry comfortable echos of familiarity.
The cabin is quiet and spacious, the design modern, the luggage bins large and easy to operate; subtle lighting patterns flow from LED illumination strips running along the ceiling and behind the bins.
In essence, the A220 is like a fun-sized Airbus A350.
“We love that comparison,” Buott laughs. “You have the same level of technology in both planes, the same innovations such as the use of composite carbon-fibre materials; you have the same advanced engine technology which gives you not just fuel efficiency but a lower noise level.”
All of those hallmarks were on show on an invitation-only demonstration flight hosted by Airbus.
Gone is the cacophony of the Boeing 717 or even the drone of a Boeing 737: this little jet makes little noise.
Not only are the twin engines quieter, Buott says, the cabin is lined with special insulation and sound-deadening materials, “and even the environmental control system and the air conditioning have been tweaked to reduce the noise of airflow within the cabin.”
There’s a sense of openness and space which again belies the A220’s compact dimensions, thanks in part to the size of the windows, which Buott claims “are the largest windows on any single-aisle aircraft.
As we flew lazy loops over Sydney and Canberra, these large Instagram-friendly windows filled the cabin with light, while the cabin’s own LED cycled through blues and greens – a colour scheme of AirBaltic, whose A220-300 has become a show-pony for Airbus.
“The biggest thing that anybody notices when they get on board the A220 is the size of the windows and the amount of natural light in the cabin, “ Buott says.
“You combine that with the very modern interior, with the pivoting bins that slope out of the way towards the ceiling, and you get really this feeling of space, light and comfort within the cabin.”
Those deep overhead bins have room enough for one standard-sized roller bag per passenger – an established sore point on the Boeing 717 – and they swing down lower than you’d expect, making it easier to load and unload those bags.
And even in the A220’s economy class, the standard-issue Safran seats had decent legroom – perhaps more to the point, knee-room – despite what you’d expect from its 32” pitch.
“Seat design has really evolved over the years,” Buott says.
“On all the seats on offer for the A220 they have this re-shaped seat back which gives you a lot more space, especially at knee-level.”
Countdown to the Qantas A220 delivery
Qantas singled out the Airbus A220 in late 2021, selecting it alongside the A320neo family as “as the preferred aircraft for the long-term renewal” of Qantas’ domestic single-aisle fleet, and signed on the dotted line earlier this year.
So what happens in the 18 months until the first red-tailed A220 lands at Qantas’ Sydney jetbase at the end of 2023?
“18 months is a pretty typical lead time on the aircraft,” Buott explains.
After airlines lock in their order for the jet, “the key milestone that happens next is what we call the configuration design brief where we go through all of the options, not just in the cabin, but on all of the systems throughout the aircraft, everything from in-flight entertainment, satellite internet connectivity to lavatory modules, galleys and ovens, trolleys and carpets.”
“I can't speak specifically for Qantas, but generally as soon as the aircraft is selected, as soon as you get that signature, you immediately start into the aircraft configuration process, which usually takes several weeks to a month.”
Once that myriad of decisions has been made “we freeze that configuration and all of those choices are sent out to the various suppliers and they start manufacturing.”
Meanwhile, the aircraft itself is coming together – in fact, the pieces of what will be the first Qantas A220 have already been made.
“The actual aircraft starts getting built about 24 months in advance,” Buott says.
“The pieces that will make up the Qantas aircraft are already in production with our suppliers: things like the wings and the tail, fuselage barrels, the landing gear, engines are all built in advance.”
All those components come together at the Airbus final assembly line at Mirabel, near Montreal, Canada.
“It takes about three months to assemble the aircraft,” Buott says, “then it rolls just across the taxiway to another hanger and sits there for about another three months getting the cabins and systems outfitted.”
“Then it goes on to flight testing, that’s about another three months, followed by customer acceptance, then the aircraft goes through its final delivery process.”
This will culminate in an epic ‘delivery flight’ of the first Qantas A220, all the way from Canada to Sydney – with at least three stops en route (we’re tipping LA, Honolulu and Fiji) – as the Flying Kangaroo soars into a new era.