US metals specialist Alcoa expects the crisis in commercial aviation, which has cut build rates by 25%, to continue for the next three years, but this downturn will be partly offset by the Airbus A380. It is also confident it can meet the composite threat with the development of new advanced alloys.

The start of assembly of the ultra-large Airbus late next year will "push the [metals] industry to the limit", says Jim Dauw, president of Alcoa's Huck Fasteners group. He adds that the prospect of growth due to the A380, and low inventory levels, will mean that component suppliers will suffer less than in previous recessions.

The A380 will contain more Alcoa material than any other aircraft, said John Harrington of the company's mill division. But it will also contain more composite components than previous Airbus types. Boeing's Sonic Cruiser programme manager Walt Gillette has suggested that the planned transonic airliner is likely to rely even more on composites to enable it to achieve performance targets.

However, Alcoa's aerospace chief Pat Hassey expects Gillette may soon change his mind - "he said the Sonic Cruiser must use composites to perform, but this was some months ago...since that time we have produced metallics that meet those requirements".

Pointing out that the A380 is "still 85% aluminium", Hassey believes that the next generation of Alcoa alloys can beat composites. While current alloys are 25% heavier and a third cheaper than composites, advanced alloys available in two or three years will "almost eliminate the weight difference while maintaining the cost savings. We compete seriously with composites on weight at half their cost - in my view, future airliners are going to be metallic-based aircraft".

Meanwhile Alcoa has unveiled an armoured cockpit door, named the Fortress, built of aluminium-alloy armour plate backed with Kevlar, and weighing 28kg (62lb). "Our target is to make this an overnight installation," says project head Andrew Trageser, adding that getting the door certificated "will go through this summer, and [take] several months". No cockpit door designs have yet passed US Federal Aviation Administration approval, and FAA requirements "are still developing", he warns.

Source: Flight International