If 1996 was the year in which aircraft orders at last started rolling again from the world's airlines, then 1997 is due to be the year in which airliner manufacturers begin to increase production rates in earnest.

Despite two years of growing backlogs, deliveries from Airbus, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas (MDC) continued to hover just below the 400 aircraft mark in 1996. In 1997, the output is due to climb to 600 shipments, with Boeing taking around 360 and Airbus reaching 190. MDC's pending union with Boeing raises questions over its future delivery patterns, but the likelihood is that it will continue to work off its backlog, at least for a year.

Orders were certainly up during 1996, with the gross tally reaching the 1,000 mark, where it has not been since the heady days of the late 1980s. Airbus, for one, is already talking of repeating in 1997 its intake of around 300 orders.

The return of confidence to the air-transport industry gathered momentum during 1996, starting with the operating lessors, encouraged by signs of hardening lease rates. By the middle of the year, the airlines were back at the bargaining table, scrabbling to secure favourable deals before the "bargain-basement" offers ran out. Not all appear to have succeeded, as witnessed by British Airways' decision to shelve a big order to renew its short-haul fleet.

With MDC now effectively sidelined, 1997 will signal the start of a straight fight between Airbus and Boeing, with the first big battle due to take place over their rival programmes for new large airliners. Seattle has already been forced to modify the agenda for its planned 747-500/600X project, as Airbus raised the tempo of its all-new 550-seat A3XX programme.

Boeing had been aiming to launch its aircraft before the end of 1996 and start deliveries from late 2000, but so far airlines have been hesitant to sign orders, as they wait to see what Airbus can offer. As a result, Boeing is now aiming for a launch during the first half of 1997, delaying service entry until late 2001.

The A3XX timetable trails by a couple of years, but it offers the advantage of a new design, with better future growth potential. Airbus will finalise the baseline definition of the A3XX during 1997, and a final launch decision is in its sights for 1998, to enable the first examples to be delivered to customers in late 2003.

Meanwhile, competition will be fierce in 1997 between the Boeing 777 and Airbus A340/330 ranges, with new family members in prospect for both. Airbus is close to taking a go-ahead decision on the stretched and re-engined 370-seater A340-500/-600, which is being pitched at the 747-200 replacement market and is expected to enter service in 2001. The new A330-200 and 777-300 versions are due to have first flights in the second half of 1997, for entry into service in 1998.

The fate of MDC's Douglas Aircraft arm in Long Beach should become clearer during the year. Boeing already needs engineering expertise and even extra production capacity as new programmes are ramped up across the range, including the next-generation 737. The first 737-700 is to enter service with Southwest Airlines in October, with the stretched -800 following later in 1997after a first flight in July. Work already being tipped to be moved to Long Beach is responsibility for the design and production of the planned 767-400ERX stretch, expected to be launched early in 1997.

Less certain is the fate of the Douglas product line, although a steady phasing-out seems inevitable, with production of the MD-11 tri-jet and MD-80 narrowbody already in their twilight. A bigger question hangs over the MD-90 which accounts for the bulk of the Douglas backlog and the new MD-95 100-seater, which has failed to win further business since its launch order in 1995 from what is now a much-contracted ValuJet.

At the regional end of the market, several milestones are set to occur during 1997. Bombardier should give a final go-ahead to the stretched 70-seat CRJ-X Regional Jet, while deliveries of its 50-seat rival, the Embraer EMB-145, will begin in earnest. Embraer will then finally discover just how many of its numerous letters of intent it can convert into firm contracts.

Meanwhile. the European regional consortium Aero International (Regional) (AI(R)) is focusing its future product line on a 50- to 70-seat jet-powered model, the AIR 58 and 70. This was announced in 1996, and the Paris air show in June 1997 is expected to be the venue for the programme's formal launch: with the developments in the air-transport industry, that promises to be an interesting show all round.

Source: Flight International