Would Sonic have changed Boeing?

“Boeing would be a different company today if it had launched any of the aircraft that were proposed before the 787.” I was almost certainly guilty of editorialising when I wrote that in Flight International’s 10 July issue, but I believe I can support the statement.

Few could dispute that Boeing has changed over the past 10 years, but what changed it most? Airbus? The McDonnell Douglas merger? September 11? Ethics scandals? Any one would have been enough. Instead they all happened.

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Forces that morphed the Sonic Cruiser into the 787 changed BoeingTo compete with Airbus as it defined the A3XX, which became the A380, Boeing in the late 1990s tried to interest airlines in various new models of 747. Tried and failed because these derivatives did not offer enough of an advantage to justify the cost or tempt any airline wanting an ultra-large aircraft away from the all-new A380.

The “internal failure” to launch a 747 derivative resulted in the first change to Boeing’s predicted path. The company’s forecasts began to reflect a philosophy that the ultra-large aircraft market it had once owned exclusively was now barely large enough to justify development of an all-new aircraft, and not enough to sustain two competitors.

747X Stretch failed to pull in customers

Instead Boeing looked to the success first of the 767 and then the 777 in opening up new point-to-point markets by making more city pairs economically viable. Fragmentation became the company’s mantra and its counter to Airbus’ hub-to-hub message for the A380.

While the 777 was fairly secure in its market, the 767 was by then losing ground to the larger A330. But efforts to turn the marketing message into sales of the stretched 767-400ER and a longer-range 767-400ERX failed because they just weren’t good enough.

The search for a market differentiator to revitalise its product line led Boeing to look at speed as a way of unlocking the true potential of its point-to-point philosophy. The result was the Sonic Cruiser, dubbed the “ultimate fragmenter”. The Sonic Cruiser was to carry 767 passenger loads over 777 ranges, but at 15-20% higher speed.

Key to the Sonic Cruiser was the technology required to enable the aircraft to cruise at Mach 0.95-0.98 with a fuel burn similar to the 777’s. That made the aircraft thirstier than the 767, but Boeing’s belief was that airlines – and passengers – would be willing to pay more to get there faster.

No light at the end of the tunnel for Sonic

If 9/11 had not happened, Boeing would likely have launched the Sonic Cruiser. Airline interest was high, with American and Virgin among the most vocal in their enthusiasm. If 9/11 and its aftermath – the Global War On Terror – had not happened, airlines would likely have bought the Sonic Cruiser, paying a little more and charging a little more for the privilege of getting there faster.

And, if 9/11 had not happened, it might have all come true.

But 9/11 did happen, and the US did launch a war that destablised the Muslim world and drove up oil prices, and airlines did decide they wanted lower cost and not higher speed. But they still wanted a middle of the market point-to-point machine and they still needed all the technology that Boeing had lined up for the Sonic Cruiser, but redirected to reducing operating cost by 15-20%.

(For an excellent analysis of what happened in those fateful months between the terror attacks of September 2001 and the shelving of Sonic Cruiser in favour of Super Efficient (aka 7E7 and 787) in December 2002, check this Guy Norris story in Flight.)

The “external event” of 9/11 pushed Boeing on to its current path and more than anything else shaped the company into what it is today. Would Boeing be any different if it has launched the 747X? Yes – the 787 would not have happened, at least not now. The push for point-to-point would have been diluted and the move to the middle of the market would have been delayed.

Would it be different if Sonic Cruiser had been launched? That is harder to say. In reality, it was the Sonic Cruiser – and not the 7E7 – broke the Boeing mould. It took the leap in technology and it took the step in risk sharing that ultimately enabled the 787.

But – had 9/11 not happened, and had it been the Sonic Cruiser and not the Dreamliner that was rolled out on 7/8/07, Boeing would have found itself ill-prepared for the market forces unleashed by public fears over climate change. Instead it has found itself ideally positioned to help airlines address this issue.

It looks like a Boeing, and says its a Boeing, but it’s not the same Boeing

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