The Ethiopian Airlines B737 MAX 8 incident on 10th March 2019 led to the grounding shortly afterwards of virtually all of the MAX series aircraft by airlines and government regulators worldwide. What happens when an airline suddenly can’t use part of the fleet? In China, airlines have had to move other aircraft around but analysis of how they have responded simply highlights how diverse the Chinese aircraft fleets are.
The B737 MAX aircraft had, according to Boeing, become the fastest selling aircraft ever with orders for 5,000 aircraft coming in from over 100 customers worldwide. By the start of the year a bit more than 350 had entered service worldwide. In China, it is still made up a relatively small proportion of Chinese airline fleets. While 737’s as a class of aircraft accounted for 41% of all flights in China, the new MAX made up a miniscule 0.9% of operations.
Air China was the first Chinese MAX customer, deploying a 737 MAX on the Beijing-Urumqi route. As of the start the year, OAG Schedules Analyser showed that there three Chinese airlines flying the aircraft: Air China, China Southern and Shandong Airlines. A further three airlines were also flying the MAX aircraft into China from bases elsewhere. These were Lion Air, Silk Air and Thai Lion Air. In January there were a total of 4,245 scheduled flights using B737 MAX aircraft in China and of these China Southern was the biggest operator, with 2,333 of these flights using their metal.
Given that the MAX is a narrow body aircraft and, in the case of China Southern or Air China, operates in a fleet with a large number of other narrow body aircraft, it could be assumed that replacing them would be relatively easy.
For China Southern, around half of all the MAX flights operated were flying in or out of Urumqi (URC) while most of the remainder were operating to or from Guangzhou (CAN). What has happened on the routes where the MAXs were being deployed?
The route with the most B737 MAX operations in January was Guangzhou-Urumqi with 213 operations in January. It turns out that this was the peak month. The number fell slightly in February partly due to the month being shorter so there were fewer days with schedules air services. While MAX operations on the route had been growing, B737-800 operations had been declining and this was a route where the two aircraft types flew most of the operations. Once the MAX was grounded, the 737-800’s were brought back to plug the gap.
It might be reasonable to think this was a pattern replicated on all routes and, indeed, a similar picture emerges on the second busiest route for China Southern’s MAX aircraft, Kashi-Urumqi. The airline had been using a wider mix of aircraft on the route including B737-800s, B737-700s and also some Embraer 190s. While the MAX aircraft were being increasingly used on the route the proportion of 737-700s and 737-300 (winglets) was also rising, at the expense of 737-800s. Interestingly, by April none of these three aircraft types were operating the route and the number of flights using the -800 had risen to exceed where it was a year ago.
The China Southern route with the third largest number of flights operated by MAX aircraft at the start of the year was Chengdu-Urumqi. It too has seen the MAX operations as well as all 737-400 flights phased out and the route is serviced almost entirely by 737-800s.
This simple substitution of aircraft is not always the case, however. On both Guangzhou to Nanjing and Guangzhou to Kunming, to use two examples, China Southern had been using a wide variety of aircraft even well before the MAXs were grounded. OAG’s database shows that 15 different models of aircraft have been used on each of these routes over the past 18 months, with as many as 11 different models being used in a single month. This is a complex schedule and use of aircraft and very far removed from the sort of single aircraft business model used by low cost carriers the world over, or even the streamlined aircraft procurement that is common in North America and Europe. While using different aircraft allows for capacity on a route to be varied according to demand, operating such a complex schedule requires sufficient pilots and maintenance facilities being in the right place at the right time.
It would appear that while China Southern were operating a schedule with a complicated mix of aircraft prior to the Ethiopian Airlines incident, the grounding of one part of the fleet has resulted in a scramble to re-order the schedule and re-align operating needs with aircraft availability. If anything, it highlights the complexity of the China Southern fleet. With very large numbers of new aircraft on the orderbooks in China, this situation may continue well into the future.