Airbus Industrie, Boeing and McDonnell Douglas will be competing in some vital sales contests in the near future

Kieran Daly/LONDON

The next few months will see the outcomes of some of the most significant aircraft sales contests in the history of the aviation business. Purchase decisions to be made in India, South Africa and, perhaps, Italy will pit the Boeing 777, Airbus A330/340 and McDonnell Douglas MD-11 against each other on playing fields which will start about as level as can be hoped for.

That is not to denigrate the manufacturers' business achievements to date. From an analytical point of view, however, these nations' long-standing flag carriers, which were not part of Boeing's "working together" team on the 777, and which have successfully operated the 747, provide more educational case histories than most. They have a straightforward need for 300-seat class medium/long-haul aircraft, and their decisions will be based heavily on the traditional values of product excellence and value for money.

The importance of these competitions for the wider world is that they will measure the airlines' confidence in the markedly different solutions to the same challenges offered by Boeing and Airbus in their current generation of aircraft. For more than 18 months, Airbus has been on the propaganda offensive, vocally claiming technical superiority over its rival. The order drought for all manufacturers, however, has made it difficult to discern the airline community's view. Business in the other classes of aircraft also provides confusing comparisons because the competitors' development-cycles and market-debuts have not been synchronised. For Boeing however, the 777 represents the best that it can now do. If its inherent strength of experience is to count for anything, then this is where it must happen.


It is sometimes observed that aircraft are no longer selected on technical merit, but merely on financial terms. In the 300-seat class that is clearly not true - the competitors differ too much. Beginning in the cockpit, both Airbus and Boeing now have fly-by-wire aircraft, but Boeing has bowed to the sensitivities of some pilots and disguised the true nature of its flight-control system with a conventional-looking control column and moving throttle-levers. It also uses flight-control laws designed to mimic the behaviour of the previous generation of aircraft, and has physically over-rideable envelope-control. Evidence that this philosophy is a positive sales-advantage is hard to find, however.

The difficulty for Airbus is that, rightly or wrongly, it has not yet killed off the questions that the A320's difficult early years raised about its own design philosophy. Its use of the sidestick, normally stationary throttles, novel control-laws and hard envelope-protection are consistent with the aircraft's new technology, but they require skills-adaptation by experienced pilots. What is encouraging for the consortium is that there are clear signs that it is slowly winning the public relations war - a war which has cost it business. Commenting on his decision to lease Boeing types, the president of one of the most promising, but of course struggling, new CIS carriers explains that the Aeroflot A310 crash made it impossible for him to take A320s. He says essentially that, while he has no personal difficulty with the type, life is hard enough without having to overcome passenger prejudices against a manufacturer.

It is striking that the test-flight crash in 1994 of an A330 in performing extreme manoeuvres at Toulouse did not result in the same kind of lengthy general media coverage, as did the A320 incidents. It appears that Airbus' efforts to educate the world are yielding results - results that can only be enhanced by the dawning realisation outside professional aviation circles that the 777 is a fly-by-wire machine as well. The rights and wrongs of the debate are, in this context, not the point: there is now clear evidence that passengers are becoming more knowledgeable and more enquiring about the aircraft in which they will fly.

The recent belated debate over code sharing, in which passengers are insisting on being fully informed about the carrier with which they will fly, is closely linked to safety perceptions. Already US legislators are reacting with new laws. During the 777's development, Boeing has appeared most sensitive over the issue of "instant" extended-range twin-engine operations (ETOPS) approval.

There is firm and anecdotal evidence that this has already played a role in aircraft selections. So far the issue has received relatively light coverage in the general media - but the aircraft's entry into service represents a delicate moment. In many instances, Airbus can offer the non-ETOPS-affected A340, provided the customer is seeking true long-range capability.

For the major carriers in particular it is not the cockpit, but the cabin, which is crucial. Boeing spent more design man-hours on the 777 cabin than on the entire remainder of the aircraft. It has cleverly redesigned the overhead bins so that they do not protrude so far into the cabin. Airbus' sarcastic response is that Airbus passengers "are allowed to sit down", but the 777 cabin, which is also wider, does have an undeniably roomy feel. The trade-offs, however, are a penalty in external dimensions and hence aerodynamic efficiency; plus the use of five-abreast seats for the central block in economy class.

Although some of the most high profile competitions will be in the 300-seat class, the future of all three manufacturers is still heavily tied to the huge 100-200-seat market. For MDC, the challenge is still to convince airlines that it has the commitment and ability to maintain a long-term manufacturing and support role. For Boeing, the primary task is to ensure that it replaces as many as possible of the 1,600 or so 727s delivered and 3,000-odd 737s delivered or still to come. Airbus vice- president of strategic planning Adam Brown is famously, and repeatedly, on record as suggesting that Boeing's decision to follow the 737 with the derivative 737-600/700/800 range represented "the first step in the decline of this one great company".

Time will tell, but Boeing is off to a roaring start with its new range. Having secured Southwest Airlines' commitment to replace its all-737 fleet with the new models, it followed up with a series of 737-replacement orders among European charter operators and then struck MDC a hefty blow by winning the much more difficult contest at SAS with the -600.

While it is true that Airbus was barely in the running with its smallest machine - the A319, and also that Boeing offered, by its own standards, a remarkably low price, the Seattle company clearly impressed SAS. Airline president Jan Stenberg, just a year in aviation, insisted that the carrier open up the field from what had become a straight Fokker/MDC race and so paved the way for the Boeing deal. Stenberg says that MDC "excluded itself" because the SAS order alone did not satisfy the manufacturer's self-imposed launch criteria for the MD-95. "But", he says, "even if it had been up and flying, then I think that the aircraft that we eventually bought would have been the best one".


Boeing worked very closely with the European charter operators on the new 737 family, and it is not surprising that the type has done well among them. A major requirement laid down by the operators, was a true FL410 (41,000ft) cruise capability, to take the aircraft over congested mid-European airspace - something Boeing has duly delivered. Yet the manufacturer is still haunted by the ongoing debate in Europe over granting it the "grandfather" certification rights which it needs to provide the seating capacity it has promised to customers (Flight International, 10-16 May). A hard line on that among the Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) could have disastrous competitive consequences for Boeing. Meanwhile, Airbus has had considerable success in getting small numbers of A320s into several of the niche north European charter operators - and even displaced MDCs at the much larger Aero Lloyd with the A321.

Airbus' true strength lies in the unprecedented cockpit, systems and power plant commonality that it offers across its product line. Every order Airbus secures for its current generation of aircraft represents a time bomb for its rivals when the time comes for the airline in question to renew a different element of its fleet. A fleet-selection manager involved in Swissair's decision to add the A319 to its A320 and A321 orders comments unprompted: "I don't think even Airbus fully understands how powerful the commonality factor is. It virtually overwhelms everything else."

The quintessential example of the phenomenon to date is Air Canada. Airbus' initial success there was a substantial A320 sale as a Boeing 727 replacement in the heady days of the late 1980s, but it followed that with a hard-won commitment for six A340s. Then, most significantly, it displaced MDC with the deal for 25 A319s in 1994. MDC saw its launch order for the "DC-9X" through industrial co-operation with Air Canada disappear, as Fokker persuaded airline chairman Hollis Harris to re-open the contest.

Unfortunately for Fokker, it was Airbus, which managed to capitalise on the new situation - also beating what was to become the 737-600. Harris concedes that Airbus offered "some give-back rights" but stresses: "We were looking hard at the commonality factor. Commonality across two-thirds of the fleet gives us a lot in parts commonality."

Later in the decade, Airbus believes, another major contest will evolve over the replacement of early 757s, 767s and A310s. The consortium expects its current A310 to win a new lease of life as that market comes back. The squeezing of more sales from the A310 and A300 series is a significant development for Airbus because it is the first time that it can capitalise on Boeing's long-standing inherent advantage of amortised development-costs.

The traditional 767 sector is a key Airbus target today. The manufacturer suggests that the transatlantic fleet has completed the decade-long adjustment to smaller aircraft types caused by the increase in point-to-point services. Now, it suggests, the trend is reversing itself as traffic volume on all routes grows. The result, it says more controversially, is that the 767 will prove too small, and leave airlines, which cannot justify using 747s, little choice but to take A330/340s. Meanwhile, it continues, the transpacific market will go through the same kind of fragmentation that led to the burgeoning use of twinjets on services over the North Atlantic and open up more origin-and-destination links to the A340 below the 747 capacity-class.

If Airbus' behaviour over the past 18 months resembles that of a company preparing itself for flotation, that is probably no coincidence. The days of publicly floated Airbus shares are a little way away yet, but the consortium's transformation into an independent manufacturing and trading company owned by the current partners may be much closer.

Source: Flight International