Boeing's talk of sonic cruisers is a distraction from the real problem facing the company - how to refresh its maturing product line-up

Boeing's commercial aircraft presence at the Paris air show can best be characterised as being long on sonic cruiser talk but short on orders for current models. In marked contrast, Airbus was able to showcase a slew of orders for newer members of its product line such as the A318 and A330-200 while firming up commitments to its new flagship A380.

This contrast succinctly summarises the dilemma that Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer, finds itself in. The company has publicly committed itself to a project that, while exciting in terms of performance and technology, will only ever occupy a niche market position. There appears to be little attention being paid within Boeing to the pressing need for its corps of Seattle engineers to focus their collective talent on rejuvenating its family of conventional airliners.

In recent months there has been considerable hype generated by Boeing's promises for a transonic airliner, and Paris has proved no exception. The sonic cruiser has provoked a high level of interest from an airline community enthused by the promise of a long-range aircraft capable of knocking hours off journey times. The concept has helped reinvigorate a marketing team that has been buffeted in recent years by an avalanche of Airbus orders and an apparent lack of a cohesive countermeasures strategy.

While the sonic cruiser might be regarded a "cool" product by Boeing Commercial Airplane Group's chief executive Alan Mulally, the design fails to address the fundamental need for fresh investment in the core product line, without which the company could be unable to pull out of a downward spiral of campaign losses to Airbus. However successful the sonic cruiser may eventually prove, the projected 20% greater fuel consumption compared to conventional jets threatens to confine the aircraft to the premium travel sector and does nothing to address the need for low-cost mass air transportation.

The sonic cruiser is the first all-new aircraft to be openly discussed by Boeing since the launch of the 777 widebody twin in 1990. The company in the interim has had one eye firmly focused on Wall Street and the other on a series of derivative developments of legacy platforms. While a third iteration of the 737 has undoubtedly been a commercial success, orders for new, stretched 757 and 767 derivatives have proven sparse, while repeated 747 growth proposals have failed to develop beyond the drawing board.

Apparent at Paris was a groundswell of concern across the industry from vendors, carriers and analysts that Boeing has needs to address that are closer to home than the sonic cruiser. The alternative is a return to the days of the 1960s and 1970s when one airframe manufacturer dominated the civil passenger and freighter aircraft markets. The net losers would be an aerospace supplier base increasingly dependent on Boeing and an airline industry used to the benefits of competition.

At Paris there was more evidence to suggest that, at least at a strategic level, Boeing's planners have been trying to map the next steps it needs to take. A push is already underway to take a major stake in the growing aircraft services sector, while Mulally has talked loosely about the need to rationalise Boeing's large number of baseline designs and derivatives. This could start with the overlapping 757-200/300 and 767-200/300/400 series. It is also clear from the recent run of A320 successes that any fourth generation of the 737 will no longer make the grade some 40 years after the type was conceived.

The danger posed by the overwhelming attention currently focused on the sonic cruiser is that Boeing will not have the financial or engineering resources to devote to a new family of conventional aircraft. The sonic cruiser, even if launched in the near future, realistically is not likely to make its service debut until the end of the decade. It is uncertain whether the present line-up of 737s, 757s and 767s can hold the line for another 10 years against the onslaught of Airbus' newer types without having relief replacements in sight.

The sad demise of McDonnell Douglas is clear warning to Seattle that airlines will vote with their orderbooks when they have no confidence that a manufacturer is recapitalising its product line. Boeing's position in the cycle of product development has never been in synchronisation with that of Airbus, which is largely the reason why the company finds itself in its present predicament. The time has arrived for Boeing to start the cycle anew.

Source: Flight International