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Dreamliner fleet leaders approach retrofit sweet spot

As the first wave of Boeing 787-8s enter their second decade of service, several airlines have announced cabin retrofit programs. James Mellon, Senior Aviation Data Research Analyst at Cirium, explores an emerging opportunity for interior updates.

By James Mellon, Senior Aviation Data Research Analyst, Cirium

Cirium is proud to be the Official Data Partner of AIX 2024.

The first wave of Boeing 787-8s to enter service are now over a decade old; their airframes need heavy maintenance, and several airlines have recently announced accompanying cabin retrofit programmes. James Mellon, Senior Aviation Data Research Analyst at Cirium, draws on Cirium’s unique data insights to analyse this emerging market opportunity.

Although regarded as a brand-new aircraft type, the Boeing 787 has been in commercial service since 2011. The oldest 787-8s have therefore been operating for well over a decade, and not only have they reached the point where their airframes require their first structural maintenance checks – they are prime candidates to undergo cabin refreshes too.

Several airlines have recently revealed their 787-8 fleets will be retrofitted with new cabins over the next few years. However, these will not be the first examples to undergo major interior updates, as we can explore using Cirium’s recently launched Ground Events analytics tool.

Since October 2019 Cirium has tracked 18 cabin retrofit events, involving 787-8s operated by All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan Airlines (JAL) and United Airlines.

United Airlines recently refreshed its entire widebody fleet with its new ‘Polaris’ business class and introduced ‘Premium Plus’ premium economy cabins. Ground Events Analytics shows all 12 of United’s 787-8s visited HAECO’s facility at Xiamen – Taikoo Aircraft Engineering – for the work to take place.

Source: Cirium Ground Events

In Japan, where the first 15 787-8s were delivered in 2011-12, the type is being used to launch new airlines. Low-cost carrier Zipair Tokyo was established by JAL in 2019, with the initial fleet comprised of the parent airline’s oldest 787-8s. Airframe maintenance checks and cabin retrofits were undertaken prior to transfer, introducing a higher-density layout with capacity increasing from 206 to 290 seats.

The Zipair Tokyo fleet has since been supplemented with two factory fresh 787-8s, but due to Boeing pausing 787 deliveries between June 2021 and August 2022, both aircraft arrived later than originally planned. To meet increasing post-pandemic travel demand, JAL transferred over additional second-hand 787-8s to Zipair, requiring the same cabin retrofit work as previous aircraft.

Ground Events analytics show that the six Zipair 787-8s were retrofitted both in-house and by third-party MRO providers at three different facilities.

ANA launched AirJapan in February 2024, which like Zipair operates medium-haul low-cost services with older 787-8s transferred from the parent airline. Five more aircraft will be retrofitted with all-economy cabins and placed into service during 2024.

The -8 was the initial variant of the 787, and 165 were delivered over a two-and-a-half-year period before the first stretched and longer-range 787-9s entered service.

Source: Cirium Fleets Analyzer

There has been a recent spate of airline announcements regarding 787-8 retrofit programmes. In many cases old seats will be replaced by new units to achieve commonality with new-build aircraft.

Cirium fleets data shows seven 787-8s have been permanently withdrawn from use. In addition to four prototypes retained by Boeing, two former Norwegian airframes were parted out in 2023, and another airframe which was never delivered to an operator is being cannibalised.

There are 383 787-8s in service and 11 in storage, while over 1,100 787s of all variants have been manufactured to date. The type’s order backlog of nearly 800 units – which includes a relatively modest 48 firm commitments for the 787-8 – means production is assured well into the 2030s.

New widebodies are being manufactured and delivered at a slower rate than airlines want to acquire them. This is making second-hand aircraft desirable, increasing their value, and therefore with the intention to operate them for the long term the business case for cabin retrofits becomes justifiable.

Six airlines have recently announced their 787-8s will undergo cabin retrofit work in the next few years. Central to these upgrades are new seats, in-flight entertainment and internet connectivity systems, which in some cases will result in the interiors matching other, typically younger, widebody types operated by these carriers.

Source: Cirium Fleets Analyzer

Having launched its new ‘Club Suites’ in 2019, British Airways (BA) will start installing the Collins Aerospace-manufactured business class seats into its 787-8 fleet in 2024. The old 2-3-2 seat arrangement makes way for a 1-2-1 configuration, improving accessibility with direct aisle access for all passengers. Together with upgrades to other cabins and the addition of wi-fi, these aircraft will then have interiors corresponding with their newly delivered counterparts, 787-10s and Airbus A350-1000s. The upcoming 787-8 work follows on from retrofits to BA’s 777 fleet, which were performed at BA’s maintenance facilities in Cardiff, Cirium’s Ground Events analytics shows.

Ethiopian Airlines is enlisting Adient Aerospace to supply lie-flat Business class seats for its 787s. Although the airline has not announced which aircraft will be retrofitted, Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer shows the airline operates 10 787-8s featuring angled business class seats, with 150 degrees of recline and arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration. These aircraft are Ethiopian’s oldest 787-8s and were delivered between 2012 and 2014, before the latest-generation business class seats with privacy doors in a 1-2-1 configuration were widely available.

Not all of the upcoming retrofits will see premium cabins change to a 1-2-1 configuration.

Jetstar plans to retain its seven abreast seat arrangement, but as premium travel demand has grown it will increase the number of seats in this cabin from 21 to 44. The Qantas subsidiary has also announced that crew rest areas will be installed on its 11 787-8s, suggesting these aircraft could be used to open new long-haul markets. Fleets Analyzer shows Jetstar has 98 A320neo family aircraft on backlog, including 36 examples of the A321XLR. These long-range single-aisle jets could be deployed onto Jetstar routes currently served by the 787-8s, freeing them up to expand the carrier’s route network.

With several airlines planning cabin retrofits for these relatively young aircraft, and at a time when heavy maintenance is required, logic would dictate that other airlines operating the 787-8 will also take the opportunity to update their fleets.

Contact our team to discover how Ground Events enables businesses to understand when, where and why aircraft are undergoing retrofits and other maintenance events.

Attending AIX Hamburg? Book a meeting with the Cirium team.

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