FORECAST: CSeries first flight could provide 2012 highlight

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Passengers boarding the first jet airliner flight, a BOAC de Havilland Comet, might have viewed the diamond anniversary of that pioneering service differently.

Perhaps they would have envisioned, 60 years later, aircraft propelled by rockets, or which could take off and land vertically, and that aviation would remain glamorous, the exclusive preserve of those who could afford to travel in luxury. In which case they would have been disappointed - possibly aghast - at the prospect of an aircraft capable of transporting 500 passengers.

However, in 2012 the global Airbus A380 fleet will approach 100 aircraft, nearly matching the entire production run of the Comet, among them the first deliveries to new operators Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines.

While the A380's introduction has prompted carriers to offer premium passengers an extra bit of comfort, few have experimented with interior gimmicks. As the type becomes increasingly common, predictions - once considered cynical - that it would find a niche as an efficient mass-transport vessel, rather than an airborne cruise ship, appear to have been confirmed. Which means no one will expect anything otherwise when the Boeing 747-8I enters service with Lufthansa next year.

The Boeing 787 has yet to become a familiar sight at airports but the delivery of the first example into revenue service, and the expansion of the route network in early 2012, will start to diminish memories of the twinjet's painful development and put Airbus under pressure to demonstrate it can avoid the same traps and setbacks with its A350 family.

Final assembly of the first example had been due to start at the end of 2011 but the slip to the following year threatens a sense of déjà vu, particularly given that the A350-900 was originally expected to enter service in mid-2012 when the programme was first unveiled. Even if progress on the -900 is smooth, the stand-off over the larger A350-1000 has yet to be resolved. While Airbus has bought itself another couple of years with the redesign, the new version has yet to demonstrate it can either attract new customers or satisfy current ones.

Boeing, meanwhile, is already plotting to counter the A350 family via a combined stretch of the 787 and improvements to the 777, and its commitment to the re-engined 737 Max could bring greater clarity to the twin-aisle plans in 2012.

Similarly, Boeing is likely to give further technical detail about the Max and more customers will probably identify themselves as the programme proceeds to the point of formal orders. CFM International, supplying the crucial engine technology, is to proceed to a new core demonstrator of its Leap powerplant in 2012. The engine is intended for the Chinese Comac C919 and later versions of the Airbus A320neo.

With slots becoming scarce, sales of the re-engined Airbus are likely to calm in 2012. If the 737 Max appeals in a similar way to the A320neo - and Boeing's early claim of 700 commitments would suggest it does - the US airframer could experience a moderate surge of orders in 2012, even though its updated twinjet is two years behind the Airbus counterpart.

Although the A320neo will not arrive until 2015, the first stage in its evolution - the "sharklet" wing-tips - will continue to undergo flight-testing, and later this year Airbus expects to begin building strengthened, sharklet-compatible wings as a standard for the A320.

The A320neo will initially roll off the production line with Pratt & Whitney's PW1100G geared-turbofan engine. But the powerplant technology will reach a critical development point this year, with certification for the PW1524G version designed for the Bombardier CSeries twinjet. If the programme stays on track, the CSeries will potentially provide the commercial aviation industry's highlight of the year - the type's maiden flight. While this would give a literal lift to the twinjet project, which has battled with slow sales, it would also underpin confidence in the geared turbofan, a third variant of which - for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet - is due to undergo airborne tests in 2012, followed by the first flight of the Japanese-built aircraft.

The focus on regional jets leaves ATR as the only airframer to express more than a passing interest in developing a larger turboprop, and the manufacturer might press home that advantage through a firmer proposal in 2012.

Even if it harbours reservations on a 90-seater, ATR will keep itself occupied with a planned rise in production to about 70 aircraft. Did the first Comet passengers expect jets to have replaced propeller-driven airliners within six decades? If so, they couldn't have been more wrong.