November 05, 2012
Jens Flottau Frankfurt
Manufacturers tend to highlight trends such as the burgeoning middle class in emerging markets as key drivers for rising commercial aircraft demand. But the single most important factor is something less strategic: fleet replacement.
According to Airbus's latest global market forecast (GMF), more than 10,000 aircraft will be replaced over the next 20 years. Airbus predicts a total output of 27,000 new single-aisle and larger airliners by 2032. Those will be built by Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer, of course—and soon also by Comac and the United Aircraft Corp. (UAC).
If Airbus's forecast is on target, 38% of total production will be needed to replace the existing fleet. But if airline growth is lower than the 4.7% average Airbus predicts, then the share of replacement aircraft will rise even further. David Stewart, of the ICF SH&E consultancy, estimates that 45% of deliveries this year are for replacement rather than fleet growth.
According to the GMF, 500 aircraft must be built annually to compensate for retirements. And this year, that figure is likely to be exceeded, says TeamSAI President David Marcontell. His consultancy forecasts that 503 aircraft will be permanently parked in 2012.
That figure is higher than it has been in the past few years, when retirements rarely exceeded 400. The increase is a function of the fact that total aircraft numbers are rising, thus even at a stable retirement rate, the absolute numbers will go up.
But that is only part of the truth. Some analysts are noting what they think could be the beginning of a trend: Airlines globally are slowly beginning to retire their aircraft at younger ages. And they believe that trend will accelerate with the arrival of new aircraft such as the Airbus A320NEO and Boeing 737 MAX in the next few years. “The fleet is getting younger, faster,” says Marcontell.
The average fleet age has already declined slightly since 2009, just after the global financial crisis took hold. The average age is now 11.9 years, compared to 12.2 years three years ago.