Boeing’s ground-breaking 787 rolled out 8th July to a worldwide extravaganza on the internet. Airbus’ A350, after several false starts, finally found its footing at the Paris Air Show. The world’s media and many in aviation, compare the two aircraft as rivals, but the A350 XWB also takes on Boeing’s 777. Without question, the 787 is a runaway success. By the roll-out on 7/8/07, the 787 had received 677 firm orders – more than any other new aircraft programme by several factors and surpassing the previous record of the derivative 737NG of more than 500 orders by roll-out.
Launched in December 2003, the 787 stands to remake Boeing for decades to come.
The composite fuselage almost certainly will be used on all new aircraft coming from Boeing, and the production and assembly process adopted for the 787 will likewise be the model for future aircraft. In the meantime, Airbus finally has gained ground with the A350. Originally conceived as a re-engined A330-200, the airline industry universally rejected the warmed-over aircraft. The technology dated to the 1990s. The fuselage was the same width as the original A300 conceived in the early 1970s. The metal fuselage was outmoded compared with the leap-frogging composite concept advanced by Boeing. Airbus next came up with a new wing, but otherwise the A350 Version 2 was still the A330. Several more iterations were advanced until, finally, Airbus settled on Version 6, the rather cumbersomely-named A350 XWB, for Xtra Wide Body. (Why A350 XWB? Departing from the A350 name might have implications in the trade dispute between the US and Europe over alleged Eurogovernment launch aid. The A350 was announced before the dispute arose and therefore by some argument could be grandfathered in. An entirely new name, such as the A360 or widely-talkedabout A370 arguably would not be eligible for launch aid. Airbus says the A360 name was rejected because of anticipated jokes of the aircraft going in a circle or full-circle and the A370 name was rejected because Boeing uses “7” for its airplane names.)
The XWB is five inches wider than the 787 and passenger capacity is larger than the 787. Airbus touts the Xtra Wide Body for its advantages over the 787. (For comparison, the A320 is seven inches wider than the 737.) And indeed, the extra room is always nice for the passenger – if the airlines allow it. The 787 was originally designed with eight abreast in coach envisioned, but the airlines quickly decided they wanted nine, reducing the coach seat to the same size as the 1950’s 737 fuselage design. While the 787 is designed entirely for one market segment, the 210-300 niche, Airbus thinks the 787 is too small and designed the A350 as a slightly larger airplane – 270-350 passengers. Airbus, drawing on its experience with the A330 family as being somewhat larger than the 767, believes the 787 is too small considering normal market growth. But in designing the larger A350, Airbus actually winds up with two models competing directly with the 777, thus trying to take on two highly successful Boeing airplanes with one aircraft. Airbus effectively cedes the 200-250 seat market, a market for which forecasts suggest there are about 1,500 sales to be made over 20
years. (Airbus thinks the next generation of single-aisle airplanes can tap some of this market up to 220 seats, the size of the A321 and 737-900ER.)
The A350’s dual mission is not secret; Boeing certainly knows it (and, by all accounts, is indeed concerned about the competitiveness of the 777 against the XWB, perhaps making enhancements a higher priority than a replacement for the 737). Airbus clearly talks about it, calling the -900 directly targeted against the 777-200ER and the -1000 the competitor to the 777-300ER. But the media largely ignores this. Of the 254 orders and commitments for the A350 XWB, 141 are for the -800, 93 are for the -900, and 20 are for the -1000; 113 or 44% of the sales are for XWBs competing against the 777. But for all the hoopla Airbus promotes over the Xtra Wide Body, it’s narrower than the 777.
So what of the future for the three airplanes? The 787’s future is incredibly bright. The only thing that can derail it is a serious glitch in the production programme that results in more than a delay of 4-8 weeks. Nobody right now expects this. For the A350, sceptics still focus on the absence of an order from International Lease Finance Corp. ILFC has an outstanding order for 16 of Version 4 that has not been converted to an order for the XWB. ILFC chairman Steven Hazy continued to voice some doubts at the Paris Air Show, and Airbus critics were quick to pounce. But we’re told there is no doubt that ILFC will order the aircraft, if not this year then certainly next year. The absence of an engine choice on the A350 also draws critical scepticism. So far, only Rolls-Royce is offered on the aircraft because General Electric refuses to put its engine on the -1000, which will compete with the 777-300ER, itself a sole-source GE engine. GE doesn’t want to compete with itself, it’s said – a bit of an odd stance considering GE provides engines to other competing Airbus and Boeing products. Rather, GE’s contract with Boeing might prohibit GE providing an engine to a competing product for the 777-300.
Aside from ILFC, industry eyes are watching what British Airways will do for its anticipated order for twin-aisle airplanes, expected in October. The A350 is competing with the 787 (and the A380 is competing with the 747-8). It’s probably an uphill battle for Airbus; BA has been an exclusive Boeing customer for twinaisle aircraft. On the other hand, Airbus has the exclusivity on single-aisle aircraft and could throw in a deal of some kind on A320 orders as a sweetener. Either way, whoever wins BA will gain a great deal of prestige. In the US, only Delta Air Lines is likely to place an order by year-end, and it’s already signalled that the 787 is the probable choice. American Airlines won’t order anything soon due to labour negotiations with pilots. United Airlines stated this summer it’s not even considering ordering airplanes – probably because it doesn’t want to clutter up its balance sheet in hopes of a merger or acquisition. The 777 through 3 July has 70 orders vs 113 orders and commitments for the A350-900/1000 series, or at face value a 61% market share. (Airbus expects most of the commitments to become firm orders this year and more orders will be received as well.) So far, this is the overlooked story in the A350 saga. The year-end numbers will be telling.
Article contributed by Scott Hamilton. He may be reached via www.leeham.net