Boeing's A350 counter-attack too smart or too late

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Boeing's top brass have finally come clean about the options under evaluation for a counter attack against Airbus's A350-1000, but a key customer - Qatar Airways - questions whether the airframer may have already missed the boat.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Scott Carson says that the double stretch 787-10, a rewinged 777 or an all-new design are "potentially competing alternatives" to meet future customer needs.

However, Qatar Airways, which is the A350 launch customer and has 20 -1000s on order but is also a key Boeing widebody client, is not impressed with the timing. The airline has orders and options for 60 787s and also has a large 777 backlog, and chief executive Akbar Al Baker says the airframer "is doing things too late. Unfortunately Boeing is not run by commercially minded people, it is being run by bean counters and lawyers and if they continue to go this way they will give an even bigger advantage to Airbus."

One analyst believes it is far too early to call Boeing late to the party: "Given the market environment, given the 777 order book, given the unknowns about 787 performance and A350 programme execution, it's completely premature to expect an A350 competitive response from Boeing," says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis for the Teal Group.

A double-stretch 787-10 would fill the spot currently occupied by the 777-200ER seating about 305 to 310 passengers, while touting a comparable or longer range than the current offering of 13,890km (7,500nm).

Boeing is also exploring upgrades to its existing 777 with new cockpit technologies and fresh wing design for the large twinjet (see box).

"We look at studies of all nature," says Carson. "Some studies could even include such things in the future as potentially rewinging the airplane. And while no commitments have been made, each study has become a vital part of how we extend the utility and increase the value of [the 777]."

"Both the -10 and a rewinged, upgraded, improved 777 can offer great utility for customers. The trick is to find the one that addresses the needs most broadly so we can have broad-based market success," says Carson.

While the 787-10 and 777 rewing are "not necessarily linked today", Carson says that Boeing is working with customers to identify their requirements, find a product that will best address them and then exploring the feasibility of such a venture.

Carson also said that a third option, a clean sheet design, is being considered as well if the 777 rewing and 787-10 are deemed to be lacking.

"The history of rewinging is unblemished by success," Aboulafia says sceptically, believing that a clean-sheet 777 replacement may be the likeliest option for Boeing, while a 787-10 might not be a technically viable fuselage stretch.

Airbus sales chief John Leahy describes his rival's response as "confirmation of the winner [Airbus has] in the A350 XWB. They clearly need to do something to update the 777".

Carson declines to specify either a proposed cost for a rewinged 777 or a timeline to achieve such a goal, although he confirmed that the development and definition of the A350 would be a key factor in the decision-making.

"Certainly we pay attention to the capability of that airplane, and not only the capability which will be demonstrated as the airplane goes into flight test and the way the airplane is being marketed because that creates marketing expectations and allows people to think outside the box about what the world will look like in the future," says Carson.

Airbus plans to have the A350-900, which competes directly with the 777-200ER, flying by 2012, with an entry into service the following year.

Carson also declines to say whether, if the green light is given to the 787-10, it would be the second or third 787 derivative after the stretched -9 or the short range -3.