DUOPOLISTS DUEL WITH THIRD PARTIES
Airbus and Boeing have enjoyed a duopoly in the mainline airliners market for long enough – a couple of decades – that it has become standard analysis to regard their position as essentially unassailable. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the absorption by Boeing of its last US rival, McDonnell Douglas, the competition has been exactly zero.
Given that their market dominance has been so dramatically firmed up by an unprecedented long run of record-breaking sales, it has been hard to see where there is any space in the market for a serious rival, even if a pretender to their throne had the technical nous to realise some alternative metal.
But, this year has seen some movement. On the narrowbody front, Russia is test-flying the Irkut MC-21, and China the Comac C919. On paper at least, both have the performance potential to give airlines pause for thought before signing up to yet more Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s, but neither are considered a serious competitive threat.
Canada’s Bombardier, however, seems to have actually rattled cages in Seattle and Toulouse. As a clean-sheet design launched as recently as 2008, its CSeries – with its next-generation engines, composite wings and general all-newness – has won plaudits for efficiency, technological advances and relatively smooth entry into service.
By comparison, the market-dominating A320 and 737 families – tweaked and re-engined as they are – look positively elderly.
Size-wise, the CSeries sits between sub-100-seat regional jets and the 150-seat-plus Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies, and its market presence has been muted by development and production issues. But, all the same, it has come under competitive fire.
First, the USA has launched a trade dispute against Canada alleging that government subsidy of the programme harms Boeing – which could end with a swingeing, punitive, 300% tariff on sales to, for example, signed-up customer Delta Airlines.
Airbus, too, appears to regard the CSeries as a worthy competitor but has taken an arguably less confrontational approach. It has effectively bought the programme. If the deal clears regulatory hurdles, next year will see the formation of the CSeries Aircraft Limited Partnership – majority owned by Airbus, with Bombardier and the Canadian government relegated to minority interests.
A different competitive threat emerged on the other side of the globe, though, when Russia and China firmed up talk about a joint effort to take on the widebody sector. United Aircraft and Comac now call their programme the CR 929 – CR as in China-Russia – and it will come in three flavours, handling 250 to 320 passengers over ranges from 5,400nm (10,000km) to 14,000km. Overseeing development is a new joint-venture company called China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC), based in Shanghai, and a design centre in Moscow. We are told to expect early configuration and preliminary design in 2018, first flight in 2023 and entry into service in 2025.
Does the duopoly have a limited lifespan? Russia certainly has technical expertise and China has money – and a huge domestic market – but neither have been much of a threat on the programme management front. In this case, however, they have shown themselves to be realistic about their limitations, and are asking Western suppliers to come on board. Having said that, the history of Sino-Russian collaboration is not particularly encouraging. Watch this space.
AIRLINES BATTLE IT OUT
For airlines, 2017 was a year to note for improved profitability off the back of continued strong air travel demand, but the positive mood was punctuated by a series of high-profile challenges and service interruptions that dominated headlines.
US carriers found themselves battling to lure price-conscious travellers. United Airlines led the way with a no-frills basic economy fare, but was forced to take a step back amid a fierce competitive response from rivals.
Indeed, by September the largest US carriers were lowering their third-quarter unit revenue expectations as, nearly universally, they reported a spike in competitive pricing activity. While US carriers continue to lead industry profitability, the price war and a ferocious hurricane season took the gloss off profit performance.
In Europe the difference between an "IT meltdown" and a "power failure" had to be explained by British Airways. The incident grounded a host of BA flights and served as an illustration of the almost impossible customer service challenges that disruption can cause. That was to become more apparent when Ryanair's pilot-rostering difficulties prompted a wave of flight cancellations.
Yet the underlying strong business environment – and IAG and Ryanair have been among the most robust groups in Europe in recent years – means both are still on course to make record high profits for the 2017 financial year. Indeed, European airlines as a whole are likely to improve margins.
Monarch Airlines ceased flying in October, soon followed by Air Berlin. Alitalia, meanwhile, is no stranger to the last chance saloon, seeking fresh investment after entering extraordinary administration. For an industry that has prided itself over the past couple years on breaking with tradition to resist the urge to pile on capacity, it is worth noting that all three suffered, in part, from the competitive impact of increased capacity – especially into popular Mediterranean markets.
Traffic between the Middle East and the USA was hit by tightened security. US president Donald Trump may have ultimately failed to ban travel by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, but restrictions on bringing large personal electronic devices onto flights to the USA from a number of airports in the Middle East and North Africa followed. The UK took a similar line, albeit with a different list of origin airports.
The UK and USA began lifting those restrictions in the summer, but a row over alleged government subsidies to big Gulf carriers saw their US rivals call for a review of the open-skies deal with the UAE and Qatar – a row that rumbles on. American Airlines then hardly welcomed a planned – but ultimately aborted – move by Qatar Airways to buy up to 10% of the carrier. AA dropped its codeshare with Qatar and Etihad, prompting the latter to drop its Dallas/Fort Worth service.
Middle East carriers were also hit by diplomatic tensions closer to home when the severing of ties by a number of states in the region with Qatar resulted in the closing of airspace in several markets. Several months since the row erupted in early June, the restrictions remain in place.
But for many, the memorable moment of the year came on 9 April, when police at Chicago O’Hare International airport boarded United flight 3411 and violently dragged a passenger off the overbooked aircraft, leaving him with a bloodied face and, reportedly, broken teeth.
A video of the incident went viral online and the ensuing publicity nightmare ended with David Dao settling privately for what may have been rather a lot of money.
The incident led United, American and Delta to amend their overbooking policies, in some cases giving local managers discretion to offer more cash to displaced passengers. But US lawmakers grilled airline bosses all the same and new consumer rules were proposed. United boss Oscar Munoz said: "That is not who our family at United is. This can never, will never happen again on a United Airlines flight."
RYANAIR HITS TURBULENCE
While it may sometimes seem – at least from the perspective of envious rivals – that Ryanair can do no wrong, the budget airline with a gift for turning in ever-higher profits from ever-growing passenger numbers while – if one believes its critics – putting the misery back into flying finally this year flew into some turbulence. Over about six weeks in September and October, Ryanair was forced to cancel some 2,100 flights, leaving more than 300,000 passengers in the lurch because there was nobody to sit in the cockpits.
The episode, blamed on a rostering foul-up, would be memorable if only for schadenfreude. But while Ryanair was careful to dismiss the fiasco as a temporary blip in its otherwise unblemished record of perfection, famously-irascible chief Michael O’Leary revealed, perhaps unintentionally, that management was actually a bit rattled.
A man whose idea of in-flight entertainment is listening to K-Mart-style public address announcements ("lottery tickets on sale now!", "another Ryanair flight arrives on time!") and queuing for pay toilets left himself wide open to accusations of actually harbouring the capacity for empathy by sounding a note of contrition, uttering the words "I apologise" as the situation unfolded.
"This is a mess of our own making," he said. "I apologise sincerely to all our customers for any worry or concern this has caused them over the past weekend."
The explanation – "We have messed up the allocation of annual leave to pilots in September and October because we are trying to allocate a full year's leave into a nine-month period from April to December" – seemed fair enough, though it may not have inspired much confidence in the ability of O'Leary's management team to, say, count.
But the incident did not hit full-year profit expectations and, he stressed, would not be repeated, as 2018's holiday calendar and pilot roster would be aligned.
Pilot relations, however, have long been tetchy and were not improved by the affair. Ryanair tabled an offer of improved terms and conditions and promised to hire more pilots directly rather than through agencies, but the BALPA pilots' union remained defiant. Said general secretary Brian Sutton: "It fits Ryanair's narrative to paint unions as 'outsiders', threatening the company's future. This is nonsense, and any of the problems Ryanair is having with pilots are, in our opinion, entirely as a result of management failures."
Airbus's October first flight of the re-engined and updated A330-900 also marked the initial flight of the Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 powerplant, which had only undertaken ground tests before the aircraft's maiden sortie from Toulouse.
The engine – the exclusive powerplant for the A330neo family – is a successor to the Trent 700 on the baseline A330. It has been derived from the Trent 1000-TEN, manufactured for the Boeing 787, and incorporates technology from the Trent XWB, which R-R designed for the Airbus A350. The engine maker says the Trent 7000 is capable of delivering 68,000-72,000lb (302-320kN) of thrust and cutting specific fuel consumption by 10%. Development has taken longer than originally scheduled, contributing to a shift of several months in the A330neo production timeline. The manufacturer has had a high workload over the past year with production of the Trent 1000-TEN, as well as the Trent XWB-97 for the A350-1000.
TAP Portugal will be the first carrier to take delivery of the A330neo.
US and European regulators certificated the biggest Airbus twinjet variant. The first example of the R-R Trent XWB-97-powered aircraft is expected to be delivered to Qatar Airways before the curtain closes on 2017.
Boeing 737 Max 8
Boeing's fourth re-engining of its 737 narrowbody in the programme's 50-year history entered commercial service in May, when Malindo Air carried customers in the Max 8 variant. Norwegian Air International was close behind, inaugurating transatlantic service for the type about a month later.
In November, Boeing started final assembly of the third and smallest variant in the series, the Max 7, in anticipation of flight testing at the company's single-aisle production centre in Renton, Washington. Final assembly for that 737-7 – with 138-153 seats in a two-class layout – follows three years behind the 162-189-seat Max 8.
The -7 milestone came a little less than a year after the same point was reached in the 178-193-seat Max 9 programme, which made its first flight in April; it continues in flight testing and is on track to enter service next year. A 188-204-seat Max 10 is in design.
First flight for the newest and longest member of the Dreamliner family came in March; the first example for launch customer Singapore Airlines rolled out of Boeing's paint shop in October – delivery is expected in May 2018.
The programme has been delayed five times and first delivery pushed back two years to 2020, but Mitsubishi decided it was time to show its mettle – indeed, its metal – by taking time out of a trying flight-test campaign to fly one of its MRJ test aircraft to the Paris air show. Things have not gone smoothly since then, though – flight testing was suspended in August, for about a month, following an uncommanded shutdown of a Pratt & Whitney PW1200G engine, but while the cause remains under investigation, the event was deemed a one-off, so a grounding order was lifted in September.
But in October, Mitsubishi confirmed that one of its metal suppliers had been caught fabricating inspection data on its product – but said the issue was not expected to impact the development programme, as investigations showed parts made from metal supplied by Kobe Steel found that it "remains within our design standards we originally set for aircraft safety", and thus the safety of the jet is not in question.
Mitsubishi aims to deliver the first 90-seat MRJ90 to launch customer All Nippon Airways in mid-2020.
The Chengdu J-20 fighter entered service with the Chinese air force in the autumn. A brief, three-line statement from the Chinese ministry of defence said the developmental type had entered service, but added little else. Chinese defence chatrooms suggest the number of in-service examples could be six. Just to wrap a little intrigue around the mystery, there also emerged reports of progress with indigenous engines. Early examples were powered by Russian Saturn AL-31Fs, or a Chinese engine, the Shenyang WS-10. Now, media reports suggest the type will receive the more powerful WS-15 engine, which allegedly will allow the J-20 to "super-cruise" – or fly at supersonic speeds without afterburners.
The J-20 first emerged on Chinese defence sites in late 2010 and made its public debut at last year's Airshow China in Zhuhai, with two examples overflying the crowd.
In the United Arab Emirates, local aerospace company Calidus took the occasion of the Dubai air show in November to reveal to the world its B-250 light strike aircraft. The all-new, multirole strike and surveillance aircraft, built from carbonfibre and powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68 turboprop engine, was developed in only two years in conjunction with Brazilian aerospace company Novaer.
Bearing some similarities to the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the B-250 has been designed from the ground up as a strike aircraft, rather than a platform adapted to the role, which Calidus says is a major advantage over competing products. In the strike, counter-insurgency, close air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance roles, the aircraft can be equipped with seven munitions and an electro-optical sensor pod.
Sources close to the company say the aircraft has already generated significant interest from potential customers.
But the aircraft is noteworthy also as an illustration of the levelling power of software – in this case Dassault Systèmes 3D Experience computer-aided design and collaboration platform. Says Calidus chief software engineer Hamdan Al Shkeili: "This platform enabled our teams in Abu Dhabi and Brazil to work together throughout the design process to get the aircraft's components right from the start. We successfully demonstrated that, with the right technologies, we could deliver in an industry having the highest technological standards."
Production of the new aircraft is in its early stages at Calidus's facility in Al Ain.
F-35: LIGHTNING STRIKES?
The Pentagon’s most expensive procurement programme to date experienced yet another year of taking two steps forward and one step back. Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter made a series of momentous transatlantic flights, with delivery to the Royal Norwegian Air Force in November and the F-35A's Paris air show debut in June. But the embattled-though-barely-battle-ready fighter is still plagued by protracted repairs, corrosion issues and development delays.
During the annual Air, Space and Cyber conference in September, the F-35's new programme executive, US Navy Vice Adm Mat Winter, announced the Joint Program Office was considering keeping scores of F-35s equipped with a non-combat rated software operating system.
Lockheed has already delivered more than 108 with Block 2B software and each fighter would require more than 150 modifications to reach the combat-ready Block 3 standard. The modifications could threaten coffers reserved for the coming production ramp up, which will see more than 900 aircraft delivered over the next five years.
The F-35A made its Paris debut this summer, flying a square loop over the fields of Le Bourget and standing out on the static display. Even its grounded presence marked a notable event for US stealth aircraft at the show, after controversy over possible French industrial espionage broke out after the last static display in 1991, when the F-117 Nighthawk visited.
But behind the Joint Strike Fighter's pomp and circumstance, reporters at the show pressed US Air Force officials to address ongoing oxygen issues with F-35As stationed at Luke AFB in Arizona. Luke AFB grounded its F-35A fleet on 9 June, after five pilots experienced "hypoxia-like symptoms" over the previous month. The base did not lift altitude restrictions on the aircraft until early August, though the USAF had not identified the root cause of physiological events that prompted the base's decision to restrict its F-35 squadrons' flying operations.
Despite its development difficulties, Lockheed and the F-35 weathered its first year in the Trump administration. After decrying the programme a year ago on his Twitter account, the president appeared to have a change of heart with the stealth aircraft. Procurement for the F-35 remained steady in the White House's fiscal year 2018 defence budget request and Congress outlined additional F-35 orders in its defence spending bills.
Lockheed may be heading into a more optimistic 2018 with its tempestuous customer to the north, though. Canada is reopening its next-generation fighter contract for bids and expects to award by 2021. Initially rebuffed by prime minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party, Lockheed's F-35 could fare better in a future fighter competition after Boeing's commercial arm sparked a international trade dispute over allegedly unfair subsidies to Canadian aerospace champion Bombardier's CSeries jetliner project.
Business aviation has been a delicate affair since the financial crisis, and while 2017 has been another relatively quiet year for the industry – no new programme launches – there has, at least, been modest growth in new aircraft sales.
In its latest industry shipment report, released in November, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association recorded 434 business jet deliveries in the nine months ended 30 September – six more than in the same period a year earlier. While this output is a far cry from the heady days of 2007-2008, the Washington DC-headquartered trade body points to an "upward trend" in the market; a palpable sense of optimism has returned to the industry in 2017 – in sharp contrast to the gloom just a year ago.
And the imminent arrival of a host of clean-sheet business jets has contributed significantly to this mood change – new technology being an effective stimulant for potential buyers. Indeed, five major airframers have been working over the past 12 months to bring new products to market – and two of these programmes – Pilatus Aircraft's superlight PC-24 and Textron Aviation's super-midsize Longitude – are on track for certification and service entry in December 2017 and January 2018 respectively.
Gulfstream had hoped for a 2017 certification and service entry for its G500, but a delay in the supply chain pushed that to early 2018. The airframer also declared that the large-cabin, long-range business jet will be introduced with greater range than expected, allowing it to fly up to 5,200nm – an extra 200nm – at Mach 0.85.
Its larger-cabin and longer-range stablemate, the G600, was also given a 300nm range boost and can now reach 6,500nm at the same speed. This high-end business jet made good progress this year. Four test aircraft joined the certification campaign, which kicked off in December 2016, and remains on course for certification and service entry in 2018.
Bombardier is also confident it can bring its top-of-the-range Global 7000 to market within the same timeframe. Three test aircraft joined its certification campaign in 2017 – and the Canadian airframer announced that the GE-Passport-powered ultra-long-range business jet is sold out to 2021.
Confidence, however, is in short supply at Dassault. The French airframer was notified by Safran in early October that it had encountered new problems with its Silvercrest turbofan during ground and flight tests, further delaying Falcon 5X certification. Engine development issues have already forced Dassault to delay entry-into-service of the ultra-wide business jet from its target date of 2017 to 2020. The exasperated company says it is still too early to know how long the latest problems will further affect the revised schedule, and has not ruled out switching to an alternative engine supplier. A decision will be made in 2018.
Despite the Silvercrest issue, Dassault has continued to develop and test the 5X, powered by an interim standard of the turbofan. Since first flight on 5 July, the 5X test aircraft has built up more than 50h in flight, with testing focused on basic handling and systems performance.
There was more positive news at the bottom end of the market in 2016. Cirrus Aircraft began ramping up production of its Vision Jet. The pioneering single-engined personal jet entered service in December 2016 after a 10-year development effort, and the US airframer has secured around 600 orders. A further ramp-up is planned next year to help clear the hefty backlog. Hoping to capitalise on Cirrus’s success, US start-up Stratos Aircraft completed preliminary flight testing of its personal jet – called the 714 – in July, but is now confronted with the formidable task of securing around $200 million to bring its seven-seat offering to market.
IN A SPIN, STILL
For the rotorcraft industry, 2017 has proceeded in much the same fashion as the year before. Commercial sales, while occasionally offering a tantalising glimpse of a rebound, have continued to bump along the bottom. While light helicopters have shown a degree of resilience – China, in particular, appears finally to be showing significant demand. At the heavier end, there has been little change, with the offshore oil and gas sector still mired in a downturn and all the major operators continuing to experience a significant squeeze on costs. If there is a cause for optimism, it is that Brent crude prices have been climbing towards the $65/barrel mark over the past 12 months.
It is also impossible to address the offshore market without referring to the Airbus Helicopters H225. Once part of a heavy helicopter duopoly, the Super Puma remains largely persona non grata on the back of a 2016 fatal crash. Grounding orders have been lifted, but the industry remains reluctant to press it back into service.
And without wishing to sound flippant or complacent, at least there were no significant accidents in 2017: the previous two years had seen the Norwegian H225 crash, plus losses of Bell Helicopter 525 and Leonardo Helicopters AW609 prototypes.
NOW, LET’S SAVE THE WORLD
Flying around the world on solar power alone was a good trick that squeezed every ounce of performance out of materials, propulsion and battery technology to quite rightly make headlines in 2016 – but it was never the endgame for the Solar Impulse project.
During the COP-23 climate action forum, the Solar Impulse foundation launched "the second phase of its action – the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions – with the goal of selecting #1000solutions that can protect the environment in a profitable way, and bring them to decision-makers to encourage them to adopt more ambitious environmental targets and energy policies".
As project leader Bertrand Piccard puts it: "We need to embrace clean technologies and efficient solutions, because they are much more than 'ecological', they are 'logical'. They create jobs and generate profit, while also reducing CO2 emissions and preserving natural resources. Even if climate change didn't exist, they would make sense. Clean growth is much better than the dirty status quo we have today."
There was much to note in mergers and acquisitions in 2017. In September, Northrop Grumman lined up a $9.2 billion takeover of space and missile specialist Orbital ATK – itself a 2015 conjunction of space and rockets company Orbital Sciences with ATK, the maker of solid fuel propulsion systems, aerostructures and ammunition (the latter was spun off on completion).
The deal, expected to close in the second quarter of 2018, would deepen Northrop's portfolio of large space systems with Orbital ATK's focus on small launchers and satellites, as well as the latter's terrestrial rocket and missile technology, including the AGM-88 advanced anti-radiation guided missile. As part of Northrop, Orbital ATK would function initially as a fourth business sector, alongside Aerospace Systems, Mission Systems and Technical Services.
Also noteworthy was Boeing’s deal, announced in October, to buy Aurora Flight Sciences, founded in 1989 by John Langford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist behind the Daedalus human-powered aircraft project, which still holds the world HPA distance record. Since then, Aurora has been a notable innovator in lightweight structures and, more recently, autonomous systems.
As Boeing chief technology officer Greg Hyslop puts it: "The aerospace industry is going to be changing as we move into the future. There is a lot of attention around drones, unmanned and autonomous vehicles. Aurora has been an industry leader in these technology areas, so this positions us well for whatever that future might be in the aerospace industry."
Perhaps less exotic, but certainly earth-shaking in aerospace supply chain terms, are two deals focused on aircraft interiors. In April, Rockwell Collins completed its buyout of B/E Aerospace. In a Franco-French tie-up, Safran has spent much of the year running rules over cabin supplier Zodiac.
Prospects for that deal closing hit a rocky patch when Zodiac's first-half results kicked off a spate of bad news, with the company struggling to maintain quality, cost and schedules for contracted deliveries to Airbus A350 and Bombardier CSeries assembly lines. Terms have yet to be finalised, but Safran, which values the deal at €9.7 billion ($11.5 billion), still sees the sense of expanding into cabins, to bolster the aircraft equipment side of a group that sees nearly two-thirds of its revenue from engines.
But the big buyout story of the year is United Technologies moving to consume Rockwell Collins. Unveiled in September, the $30 billion cash and shares deal would, if approved, cement UTC's place as one of the world’s largest aerospace suppliers. UTC boss Greg Hayes likes the sound of that: "Together, Rockwell Collins and UTC Aerospace Systems will enhance customer value in a rapidly evolving aerospace industry by making aircraft more intelligent and more connected."
Pratt & Whitney parent UTC is no stranger to corporate activity; this move comes a couple years on from its $9 billion sale of Sikorsky to Lockheed Martin, and follows its 2012 purchase of Goodrich, a deal worth nearly $19 billion that was the biggest ever in aerospace at the time; Goodrich was combined with UTC’s Hamilton Sundstrand unit to create United Technologies Aerospace Systems.
And, added Hayes, Collins is probably not the end; once "leverage" is back to "historic levels, we will have an opportunity to explore a full range of strategic options".
CUMMINGS AND GOINGS
Elsewhere in the corporate world GKN, the British-headquartered but increasingly global engineering group whose aerospace division has achieved, over the past several years, the remarkable feat of overtaking its historically dominant sister automotive driveline business, hit a buffer – and reversed course. Aerospace unit chief Kevin Cummings, who joined the North American arm in 2008 before being promoted to take over the division in 2014 on the retirement of Marcus Bryson, had continued the company’s acquisitive ways – notably by absorbing Fokker Technologies – and this September was lined up to replace the soon-to-retire Nigel Stein as group chief executive.
But GKN abruptly changed its mind in mid-November, following a profit warning and revelations that as much as £130 million ($173 million) would have to be written off owing to "issues" in Alabama. So, Cummings left the Board and GKN with immediate effect. Former Fokker chief executive Hans Buthker stepped up to drive aerospace and non-executive director Anne Stevens was lined up as an interim replacement for Stein, who retires on 31 December.
ENDERS THE ROAD?
At Airbus, meanwhile, a cloud has formed over chief executive Tom Enders. With the company facing ongoing investigation by the UK Serious Fraud Office and France's Parquet National Financier over allegations of improper use of third-party consultants in commercial aircraft deals, October saw it alert US authorities about "certain inaccuracies" made in filings with the US State Department that cover commissions and political contributions in international arms exports.
Enders himself, formerly head of the Airbus (then EADS) defence business, is a target of an Austrian inquiry into the country’s purchase of Eurofighters.
Under Enders' stewardship, Airbus has been transformed, and he can rightly be regarded as a titan of European industry. As a political creation formed by combining French and German aerospace champions in a successful bid to build a European rival to Boeing, governance made Airbus perhaps by necessity a cumbersome beast – but now it is a reasonably normal corporation.
Gone are the days when management was tugged to and fro by controlling shareholders Paris and Berlin, when work was divvied up by politicians and when key positions – chief executive among them – were held simultaneously by French and German appointees. Airbus shares are, mostly, freely traded on exchanges. And Enders is the sole boss with his desk in a single headquarters, in Toulouse.
But the weight of allegations bearing on Airbus has some close to the company now doubting that he will be reappointed when his remit ends in 2019. Some even doubt he will remain in office that long.
A400M IN A FIX
It is just as well the Airbus Defence & Space A400M tactical transport is a military aircraft. It seems to be forever under fire. Fire, that is, from a string of technical problems that have dogged the programme both in the run-up to its much-delayed 2009 maiden flight and in subsequent years.
Much of that trouble has been engine-related. The Europrop International (EPI) consortium has delivered the Western world’s most powerful turboprop ever, in the form of the TP400-D6, but such performance has not been easily achieved. The latest problem involves the Avio Aero-supplied propeller gearbox, which has in some cases been undermined by vibration. An interim solution has been retrofitted, but approval for a permanent fix to reduce vibration and "reinforce endurance and reliability" will not come until the new year.
Delays, to deliveries and full performance, have been expensive. Indeed, Airbus incurred a fresh charge of €80 million against the programme in the third quarter of this year; the company remains in discussion with its European customers over terms.
But despite its ongoing challenges, the A400M has at least enjoyed some positive headlines, including delivery of a 50th production example – to the Luftwaffe on 29 September – and the in-service fleet having passed a combined 100,000h of engine operating time.
Those first 50 A400Ms were delivered to six nations: the UK (16), Germany (13), France (11), Turkey (five), Malaysia (four) and Spain (one). A further two examples were handed over during October, including a second for Madrid. AT PROOF STAGE UPDATE HERE. The company's order backlog for the type now stands at 122 units, with additional recipients to include Belgium and Luxembourg.
Delta Air Lines announced it would fly the last Boeing 747 international service, for a US carrier, at least, on 17 December, from Seoul to Detroit. After that, the aircraft mounts a tour linking Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Minneapolis/St Paul, all hubs of Northwest Airlines hubs, which merged with Delta in 2009.
A "handful" of sports team and other charters round out the year before a final flight – to storage in the Arizona desert in early January 2018.
So, farewell 747, after 47 years of scheduled service in the USA. United Airlines, the only other US 747 operator, retired its last of the type earlier in November.