After decades of evolution in aircraft technology that have led the aviation industry from the Wright brothers’ first prototype aircraft to the Airbus A380, it’s hard to imagine that in recent years aircraft have actually been shrinking in size. Orders for the Airbus A380 have been recently been dwindling; Boeing cut production of the 747-8 to only 6 frames per year; and the Boeing 747-400 is currently in the process of being replaced by smaller twinjets such as the Boeing 777 and A350. On the short-haul territory, smaller regional jets such as the Embraer ERJ 145 series and Bombardier CSeries and CRJ series have been replacing more conventional narrow-body aircraft such as the Airbus A320 family and Boeing 737 and 757 families.
So what is the reason behind this rising popularity in smaller aircraft?
In the long-haul market, large four-engined jets such as the A380 and B747 have been becoming less common due to the increasing popularity of more fuel-efficient twinjets. Back in the 70’s and 80’s before the development of advanced twinjets such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A330, long-haul aircraft were limited to large four-engined airliners (or trijets) due to concerns regarding engine redundancy and reliability on twinjets. Due to recent improvements in aircraft and engine design, most twinjets are now certified to fly long-haul routes over oceans or uninhabited terrain. As twinjets are generally more fuel efficient than four-engined aircraft, airlines have been slowly gravitating towards wide-body twinjets such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350 for their long-haul routes. In the short-haul market on the other hand, the increase in the number of small regional jets can mainly be attributed to the growing number of destinations and routes being added to each carrier’s network. Nowadays, a significant portion of a carrier’s network is comprised of ultra-short low-traffic “city hopper” routes that do not need to be operated by conventionally-sized aircraft and are more profitable if flown by cheaper low-capacity regional jets. In the broad spectrum of things, passengers will always prefer an increased frequency of flights between two destinations to help them make better use of their time. Smaller aircraft will allow airlines to operate flights more frequently without needing more passengers, and that’s why they can be so much more profitable and efficient for airlines.
Are smaller aircraft in any way less safe?
For a lot of people, the size of the aircraft that they’ll be flying on is a very important safety consideration when booking tickets. While larger aircraft may offer more comfort especially on long-haul flights, for the most part aircraft size does not necessarily have an effect on safety. It’s true to say that a Boeing 747 is going to be more safe than a turboprop as they’re in completely different leagues, however a narrow-body Airbus A320 isn’t any less safe than a wide-body A330 or similar. The size of the vessel would probably have an effect on safety in the context of ships and ferries, but not in the world of commercial jetliners. You may get the impression that smaller aircraft are more prone to accidents from the fact that aviation incidents usually involve narrow-bodies and never big double-deckers, but that is only because there are significantly more narrow-bodies in service.
In short, aircraft size has very little to do with safety. While smaller aircraft may not be as sexy or spacious as four-engined double-deckers, passenger comfort and safety should not vary with different aircraft sizes.