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Air Canada in talks to lease 5 Air India Boeing 777-200LRs… Huh?

Late last week, reports emerged that beleaguered Indian national carrier Air India, which is in the midst of a crippling strike by its international pilots union, was in discussions with Canadian airline Air Canada to lease out 5 of Air India’s Boeing 777-200LRs to the Toronto based airline. The news broke as Air India continues to operate less than half of its international network due to the strike by the IPG, but it is actually just the logical extension of continuous Air India efforts since 2009 to lease out 5 777s as well as 2 Boeing 747-400s.

 In the previous instances, it was reported that Air India was looking to lease out these aircraft for 8-10 years. However, given their inability to place these aircraft with any carrier for 3 years, perhaps Air India has realized that it must be more flexible. As Air India continues to take delivery of the all-new Boeing 787s, the necessity for the 777-200LR in Air India’s fleet, which has almost been miscast by Air India as a regional widebody to and from Asia, all but evaporates. Air India currently operates 8 777-200LRs, most of which are grounded due to the strike.

Air Canada on the other hand, operates a fleet of 6 777-200LRs, primarily on long range routes between Canada and Asia. The carrier recently moved to convert 5 options for the larger Boeing 777-300ER into firm orders for delivery in 2013 and 2014, ahead of the first delivery of its own Boeing 787s. As Air Canada continues to hemorrhage money on its short haul network in the face of heavy competition from more nimble domestic rivals like low cost carrier WestJet, it appears to be doubling down on its more profitable long haul network; especially important given that Air Canada is having labor struggles of its own.

Even with this rationale, it’s hard to see the merits of the deal for Air Canada. The Boeing 777-200LR is a hard aircraft to make money with, though Delta and Emirates appear to have made a go of it. Moreover, while they do need additional international capacity, Air India’s 777-200LR might not be the best choice. There are a number of differences between Air India’s 777-200LR and Air Canada’s that will increase the costs of such a long term acquisition. Firstly, Air India’s 777-200LRs are equipped with the General Electric GE-115B engines, which deliver 115,540 pounds of thrust whereas Air Canada’s 777-200LRs are equipped with the GE-110B engines that deliver 110,100 pounds of thrust. While this difference might seem irrelevant, having two different engines on the same aircraft increases operational complexity (due to slight differences in operating performance) and makes scheduling more complex. It also increases maintenance costs as an airline’s MRO workers must now be trained to handle both types of engines, or separate workers brought in to handle each. These costs are not insignificant; American Airlines famously sold off many of TWA’s 757s due to engine incompatibility earlier this decade. Air Canada would also be forced to retrofit Air India’s 777-200LRS, which are configured in a 238 seat (8F/35J/195Y), 3-class configuration, into their own 2-class 270 seat (42J/228Y)configuration. The cost of retrofitting 5 aircraft would likely run into the millions of dollars, increasing the true cost of acquisition.

So it makes little sense to me that Air Canada would be actively seeking to lease Air India’s 777-200LRs, unless Air India was practically giving these birds away with super-low lease rates. And if that is in fact the case, then even leasing out these 777s would do little good for Air India’s abysmal finances.

About Vinay Bhaskara

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