Why The Airbus A350 Would Be A Good Fit For TAP Air Portugal

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Summary

  • TAP Air Portugal is reconsidering Airbus A350s for long-haul expansion at Lisbon’s overcrowded airport.
  • The airport operator of Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado airport is losing over EUR 200 million due to capacity constraints.
  • Mismanagement and financial struggles have led to strategic shifts at TAP Air Portugal to improve operational performance.

Reports indicate that TAP Air Portugal is (re)considering an order for Airbus A350 aircraft, an idea that almost became a reality after the airline signed for the type in 2005. It later canceled the order, favoring Airbus A330neos, A321neos, and Airbus A320neos.

According to the most-read newspaper in Portugal, Expresso, TAP Air Portugal is again looking to the Airbus A350 to better suit its planned long-haul expansion and mitigate the impacts of overcrowding at the airline’s hub in Lisbon. The news comes as TAP prepares to announce its financial results for 2023, continuing its recovery and – per local media – escaping the impacts of supposedly poor airline leadership over the last few years.

The A350 order would not be immediate but is instead a long-term ambition post-privatization.

Humberto Delgado: a perpetual challenge

Portugal’s biggest airport, Lisbon Humberto Delgado Airport (previously Lisbon Portela Airport), is consistently poorly ranked regarding on-time performance, passenger experience, and overall airport quality. As the main gateway to the country’s capital, it leaves lots to be desired, with long queues and low ceilings, to name a few common criticisms. Regardless of its quality, it is packed to the brim: airlines struggle to expand operations to the Portuguese capital year-on-year.

In December 2022, the airport operators’ Director, Thierry Ligonnière, said in an interview with Dinheiro Vivo that it was losing out on more than €20 million due to capacity constraints. He said:

“Unfortunately, the time being taken to select a solution to increase Lisbon’s air traffic capacity is causing flights being rejected for next year. We have worked out that 730,000 places will not be accepted and some of these concern seats on routes that serve hubs and that could have given an added connectivity to Lisbon airport and it is urgent that this problem should be resolved”

TAP Air Portugal planes at Lisbon.

It’s a challenge that repeatedly comes back to bite airport operators and airlines alike. For instance, just this month, Tunisair announced flights between Lisbon and Tunis. The services are to operate once a week from 6 May until 21 October. However, Publituris indicated that the airline had initially wanted to operate a more regular schedule. The report reads:

“[…] the airline’s intention was to have a larger regular operation, but the exhaustion of Lisbon airport did not allow it to find slots that would allow for a greater number of weekly flights.”

The 2005 Airbus agreement

TAP Air Portugal initially signed a commitment for ten Airbus A350s in late 2005, with a further two subsequently added to the agreement. This was eventually converted into firm orders in 2007. At the time, the Chief Executive of TAP, Fernando Pinto, said:

“We have thoroughly re-evaluated our initial A350 order and the result clearly demonstrated that the XWB is the winner in all areas. This aircraft will meet TAP’s requirements to cater for passenger traffic growth across the Atlantic and our plans to serve further destinations.”

However, the airline’s management did not share this opinion years later. In particular, David Neeleman influenced the airline’s decision to change strategy. Neeleman is known for having founded WestJet and Azul Brazilian Airlines, among others, and is currently CEO of Breeze Airways.

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15% Growth Over 2023: TAP Air Portugal Carried Nearly 16 Million Passengers In 2023

TAP Air Portugal continues to grow after a strong post-pandemic recovery and impressive 2022.

Replacing the airline’s agreement for A350s, it signed a firm order for 53 Airbus aircraft comprising 14 A330-900s, 15 A320neos, and 24 A321neos. At the delivery of the first A330neo (which was also the world’s first), TAP CEO Antonoaldo Neves said:

“The A330neo will give us a lot of operational flexibility thanks to its commonality with the other Airbus aircraft in our fleet.”

As Simple Flying reported back in March 2023, David Neeleman’s decision came about after he discovered the carrier was financially unstable to the point that it could not pay employees’ salaries. He deemed it essential, therefore, to cancel the A350 order.

A TAP Air Portugal Airubs A330neo taking off .

Photo: Markus Mainka | Shutterstock

The switch at the time made sense, according to former TAP chairman Miguel Frasquilho in a parliamentary inquiry last year. Per Journal de Negocios, he said:

It “ made sense because what I learned from Fernando Pinto is that the A350s were only better in terms of use and more efficient than the A330 Neo on flights longer than 11 hours”, which “only happened, and not always, to Porto Alegre and Maputo,” and later San Francisco.

Years of mismanagement?

Mismanagement, Expresso states, has been a critical reason for the airline’s financial struggles.

One of the shifts in strategy last year has been improving operational performance. Former CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener adopted an ACMI-based strategy, hiring planes from other companies and using their crews to grow capacity. The report states that moving away from ACMI operations has been essential to cost-cutting measures. Ourmières-Widener was fired from the airline after an uncovered financial scandal in which a severance payment of €500,000 to a former board member, Alexandra Reis, was made. The ACMI strategy was then “abandoned” by her successor, Luís Rodrigues.

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Christine Ourmières-Widener was dismissed during a press conference in March amid a severance package scandal.

Indeed, in its 2022 results conference, the airline noted that one of its objectives for 2023 would be to “re-negotiate third-party contracts, ” including ACMI agreements. By the summer season of 2023, only seven ACMI aircraft remained.

Additional improvements have been observed over the first few months of 2024. According to data seen by Expresso, the airline has been named the most punctual company at Lisbon Airport. In total, roughly 64% of the airline’s flights were on time, while runner-up Vueling Airlines reached 62%, tied with British Airways.

TAP Air Portugal has an overall market share of 50% at Lisbon Airport.

The new Lisbon airport

With the news that TAP Air Portugal is looking for new aircraft to ensure its growth over the next few years, the importance of a brand-new airport serving Lisbon cannot be understated.

In an interview with Expresso last week, TAP President Luís Rodrigues said the following:

“[TAP] is naturally conditioned. We know that the [new] airport will not happen in the next three, five years. Therefore, we have to be very pragmatic. If we want to grow we have to look” elsewhere.

The debate on the location of Lisbon’s new airport has been an essentially political subject for years now. Several sites are on the table, but each has its issues. There has been some movement in recent months, with a study having been conducted on the environmental impact of each of the proposed sites. One option involving converting the Montijo Air Force Base into the new airport was deemed unviable due to ecological concerns. Vendas Novas and Alcochete are the two sites that have now emerged as remaining possible locations for the new Lisbon airport.

TAP Air Portugal aircraft parked

Photo: John Gress Media Inc | Shutterstock

The choice of the Airbus A350s, for now, remains a long-term goal, dependent on privatization. Given the airline’s precarious situation despite positive financial improvements, it is unlikely that such an order would be undertaken at this moment in time.

In other news, TAP Air Portugal released its 2023 financial results on Wednesday, highlighting a drastic improvement. It recorded its “peak net income ever” with €177 million, an increase of approximately €111 million compared to 2022. Rodrigues said:

“2023 strong results confirm TAP’s recovery path in recent years. Record revenues, surpassing the EUR 4bn mark, robust and resilient operating margins, and a clear deleveraging trend, confirm the financial strength of the Group. An increase in punctuality and regularity in the second half of the year, as well as in the NPS, underscores the organizational focus on delivering a better service to our passengers. Signing the new collective labour agreements confirms the recognition and commitment towards our people. 2024 will be a challenging year that will test the organizational focus, for which we will need the commitment of all our teams to establish TAP as one of the most attractive companies in the sector.”

Would you like to see the A350 in TAP’s fleet? Let us know in the comments below.


  • TAP Air Portugal Airbus A330-941 CS-TUB
    TAP Air Portugal

    IATA/ICAO Code:
    TP/TAP

    Airline Type:
    Full Service Carrier

    Hub(s):
    Lisbon Airport

    Year Founded:
    1945

    Alliance:
    Star Alliance

    CEO:
    Luís Rodrigues

    Country:
    Portugal



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