Whether Boeing has ceded the battlefield or outflanked its enemy depends on which side of the frontline you stand. The US manufacturer's decision to shelve plans for a larger 747 for the second time in a little over four years proves yet again that the market doesn't want a derivative of a 35-year-old design.

Boeing has moved quickly to lessen any admission of defeat by opening a new front in its battle with Airbus, unveiling a futuristic "Sonic Cruiser" proposal.

Boeing has long argued that the market for ultra-large aircraft is relatively small in the near term, and that much of the early requirement could be met with today's 747. Its crystal ball tells it that long-haul market "fragmentation" will continue apace, calling for smaller aircraft to fly the connections between secondary cities, rather than ultra-large "trunk route" machines.

Boeing maintains that Airbus' success in launching the A380 with around 60 orders is completely in line with its market forecast, and its failure to attract customers for the 747X upholds the argument that there is not enough demand in the ultra-large sector at the moment to support two aircraft. Whether this will continue to be the case as the airports and skies become more crowded over the next 10 years, remains to be seen.

So Boeing faced the prospect of wasting upwards of $4 billion developing a 747 derivative to mop up the relatively small amount of near-term demand, and could still have to spend three or four times that amount on an all-new ultra-large aircraft if and when the market fully evolves. Similarly, airlines and financiers found it hard to get excited about buying a derivative that was unlikely to see production into three figures.

As a result, the 747X design drawings have been filed away in favour of a smaller, faster aircraft that is the physical embodiment of its fragmentation vision. The Sonic Cruiser is designed to fly 180 to 300 passengers over distances up to 17,000km (9,000nm) at speeds up to Mach 0.98 and altitudes up to 49,000ft (15,000m). Such an aircraft will cut two hours off a transatlantic flight and three hours off a transpacific journey - enough, perhaps, to allow airlines to charge passengers a premium for fast, direct service.

A supersonic aircraft would save more time, but would carry unacceptable technical risks and environmental costs associated with breaking the sound barrier.

In fact the Sonic Cruiser would be a supersonic aircraft, but optimised around proven subsonic engine technology, and designed to fly as close to the speed of sound as possible, as efficiently as possible.

While it appears that there is a market for a smaller, faster airliner, the demand depends on how costly the new aircraft will be, how quickly it can be made available and, most importantly, its economics. Boeing cannot rely on emotion and enthusiasm to make the Sonic Cruiser a success. The aircraft must deliver the figures airlines are looking for.

The Sonic Cruiser is also an expression of Boeing's transformation as a company. To bring the aircraft to market quickly and economically, the company will have to deploy all the advanced design and manufacturing technology it has incubated in the Phantom Works but so far used mainly in military and space vehicles. The Sonic Cruiser is an opportunity to bring to commercial aircraft the "design for manufacture and assembly" technology that has produced major cycle time and cost reductions on programmes like the C-17, F/A-18E/F and X-45.

An all-new aircraft as advanced as the Sonic Cruiser will undoubtedly be a costly undertaking. It provides the company with an attractive long-term project with which to fight Airbus in the increasingly important battle to attract international programme partners such as Japan.

It seems unlikely that Europe can respond to the Sonic Cruiser with a direct competitor while also developing the A380. Instead, the rivals will fight for the long-haul market with very different weapons. Boeing has elected to parry a broadsword with a rapier. It will still be a bruising battle, but it has suddenly become much, much more interesting.

Source: Flight International