Airbus and Boeing cross swords again on very large aircraft market forecast

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Boeing's new "fragmentor", the 787, came face to face for the first time with Airbus's superjumbo in the static park at Farnborough. But while the two rivals' noses were no more than 100m apart, the gulf between two airframers' view of market demand for very large aircraft remains as huge as ever.

In its latest long-term market forecast, issued just ahead of the Farnborough show, Boeing has raised its overall delivery forecast significantly. However, it remains relatively downbeat on demand in the 400-seat-plus sector - where the 747-8 competes with the larger A380 - which it sees as flat.

Here, Boeing's latest forecast has declined slightly from 740 deliveries in its 2009 commercial market outlook to 720 (including around 500 passenger aircraft and 220 freighters), which is less than half of the 1,729 aircraft market predicted by Airbus in its latest 20-year forecast. Of these, Airbus expects 1,318 will be passenger aircraft and the remaining 411 will be freighters.

There has been a growing expanse between the two airframers' forecast for very large aircraft (above the 400-seat 747-400 category), with Airbus having consistently been extremely bullish and repeatedly putting demand well in excess of 1,200 units.

how airbus

Randy Tinseth, vice-president marketing at Boeing, flags up his rival's 20-year forecast from a decade ago, when Airbus predicted demand for 1,235 airliners in the A380 size and above category (500 seats and more), compared with around 500 by Boeing (this rose to around 1,100 if the 747-400-size sector was included). Flightglobal archive records show that at that time Boeing predicted the need for just 87 passenger aircraft larger than the 747-400 over the first 10 years, with demand increasing in the second half of the period to reach a total of 336 by 2019 (plus around 170 freighters).

Tinseth points out that in the 10 years following the publication of those 2000 forecasts - the year in which Airbus launched the A380 - only around 300 aircraft in the "747-400 and above size" category have been delivered (of which around 24 were A380s).

"Truly Airbus's forecast drove its strategy, because based on that forecast they launched the A380," he says.

That large aircraft demand forecast by Airbus is "yet to materialise today, and I don't expect it to materialise in the future", he adds. "For Airbus to make that year 2000 forecast happen, they have to figure out a way to deliver 1,000 A380s in the next 10 years."

large aircraft 20 year forecast comparison
Tinseth thinks that even on Boeing's reckoning, A380 sales have "underperformed" and the double-decker will need "a paradigm shift in the marketplace" for demand to start matching the forecast.

However, Airbus's A380 marketing chief Richard Carcaillet thinks Tinseth has used some "very, very bad arithmetic" to reach this conclusion: "If you read our Global Market Forecast [GMF] carefully you will see that Airbus always forecasts demand for aircraft, not deliveries specific to any given aircraft type," he says.

"This is pure demand for a generic large aircraft and we say - as always - that we'd like to capture at least half of that. So when we say 1,300 passenger aircraft, that means we'd be pleased with at least 650 over 20 years, although I think we'll get more than that because the A380 today has nearly 90% of the market."

Carcaillet adds that as well as the A380 and the 470-seat 747-8I, that large aircraft category, as defined by Airbus, could also include densely configured A340-600s or 777-300ERs.

Of the 1,318 very large passenger aircraft deliveries forecast by Airbus over the next 20 years, Carcaillet can already account for around half (see graphic). There were 241 A380s and 747-8Is on order at the time of Airbus's 2009 GMF, and the airframer forecasts demand for a further 414 very large aircraft from the 16 airline customers who have already bought A380s. "Hopefully, these additional aircraft will be A380s, but maybe not only," he says. "The rest of the open demand - 633 aircraft - is from airlines that are not A380 customers today - for example Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and others."

Carcaillet reiterates that Airbus's eventual aim is to build four A380s a month, but says that even at that rate - which would equate to a maximum of 48 a year - that would only make 480 deliveries in 10 years. "So [Tinseth's] '1,000 A380 deliveries [in 10 years]' is out of this world, but we are talking about demand in that category, not A380 deliveries," he says.