On batteries and picking your battles

This article first appeared as a Comment in the 26 February 2013 issue of Flight International

Former Airbus chief Tom Enders was referring to the A380 wing ribs when, in one of his outgoing speeches, he talked about the treacherous-but-tempting path signposted “Innovation”.

“You’re walking a tightrope,” he said. Long, ambitious strides carry the risk of falling while safe pigeon-steps leave you vulnerable to braver competitors.

How much more easily could he have made the same analogy – with the irresistible substitution of “wire” for “tightrope” – regarding the Boeing 787′s departure from conventional electrical design?

Airbus’s John Leahy has openly admitted being entranced by the prospect of all-electric architecture on the A350, only to be encouraged back by the airframer’s engineering teams, wary of the pitfalls that accompany the lure of changing the game.

After it chose not to overreach with the A350, a lesson imparted by harsh A380 experience, Airbus’s switch to nickel-cadmium batteries amounts, in comparison, to a relatively easy bit of bullet-dodging.

While the swap highlights the lack of an equally simple escape route for Boeing, the Airbus decision is certain to have been based on securing its own position rather than undermining its rival’s. The A350 programme is under enough pressure, and the Europeans have opted, if not for the devil they know, then at least for one with whom they have an acquaintance.

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