Plus ca change

This article first appeared as a Comment in the 25 June Paris air show report edition of Flight International:

Beyond the order announcements, product launches, flying displays and freakish weather, the 2013 edition of the Paris air show assembled a global aerospace industry heading in opposite directions, yet facing real and completely different pressures.

Do not be confused by the relative paucity of commercial aircraft orders. If the headlines seem underwhelming, it is only by comparison with the unrealistic standard of the debut of the Airbus A320neo in 2011 and the Boeing 737 Max at Farnborough in 2012.

The commercial aircraft industry remains on the ascent. Current backlogs are already so stuffed with narrowbody and widebody deals that a wave of new orders would only further stoke growing alarm that the industry is feeding an unhealthy and unsustainable bubble.

As it stands, Boeing and Embraer formally launched new derivatives of the 787 and E-Jet that could only be more popular if airlines did not have to wait five years to see the first of both types to enter service.

Backlogs in the hundreds of billions of dollars produce a unique set of pressures, and these were on full display at the show. Aircraft production is growing rapidly in the commercial sector. In less than three years, Airbus and Boeing may be producing more than 100 narrowbodies a month between them. Monthly widebody production by the two could approach the 35 mark overall. And that’s not counting the potential new entrants from Bombardier, Comac, Irkut and Mitsubishi. 

There are worse issues for an industry to face, but the commercial aircraft production system may have a supply problem. Huge investment may be needed to support a surge in output, and somebody will have to pay for it.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there are signs of new tensions developing in the commercial supply chain. Airbus and Boeing have each put suppliers on notice about improving quality and lowering costs. In less public venues, the suppliers to Airbus and Boeing complain many are already being pushed to the brink.

The military aircraft industry, on the other hand, probably wishes it had such a problem. Even the spectacular debut of the Sukhoi Su-35 in the flying display could not obscure an industry in decline everywhere except the Middle East and parts of Asia. Europe has yet to solve a problem of too much capacity, and the US political system makes a difficult fiscal situation more confusing. 

The industry has two years to resolve its problems before the next meeting at Le Bourget, but don’t bet on there being any breakthroughs.


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