The "sonic cruiser" may have caused a stir at an otherwise quiet Paris, Boeing still has to convince the world that it can and will deliver on this promise.

If the Airbus A380 had been the talking point of the previous air show, then the attention in Paris belonged to Boeing and its sonic cruiser. The fact that it grabbed headlines was hardly a surprise. A futuristic concept aircraft was bound to cause a stir, especially at an otherwise downbeat show. Perhaps more surprising was the energy and certainty with which Boeing set about promoting the whole high-speed aircraft concept. Even the meanest doubter would have to concede that the company really sounded as though it meant business. There is now just the small matter of whether Boeing can really deliver.

There was no lack of excitement about this new big idea, least of all from Alan Mulally, the tirelessly enthusiastic president of the Boeing Commercial Airplanes Group. "I think we're at the front end of tremendous change in this industry," he told a packed audience, assembled to see the unveiling of a scale model of the proposed aircraft. But perhaps what summed up the manufacturer's mood most was his comment as the wraps came off the 2m (6ft) model and the cameras clicked: "Way cool! It looks a little different, which is part of its magic."

But Mulally seems genuinely keen to get over the message that this is not simply science fiction. "We absolutely can build the sonic cruiser," says Mulally. He paints a vision of a future airline industry where the travelling customer is king, where segmentation and fragmentation are the order of the day, and where, therefore, many cities will be linked directly by smaller, faster, longer-range aircraft. These are the same arguments that Boeing used to brush off the A380, but this time it appears to be backing up its view with something approaching a hard proposal of its own.

Admittedly, few hard facts have been given beyond the basic proposal. However, an intriguing few glimpses were revealed by John Roundhill, the man who has been propelled from the back office of the projects and strategy development group to take centre stage as vice-president marketing of the new programme.

The core proposition, he says, is for an aircraft which will be 15-20% faster in the cruise than today's current tally of airliners, able to skim along just below the sound barrier at Mach 0.95-0.98 - thus the "cool" shape. "We already know we can do 0.95-0.96. We're trying to push it out to 0.97-0.98," says Roundhill. At those speeds the sonic cruiser should avoid the issue of a sonic boom, which has so dogged Concorde, although the aircraft would slip beyond the sound barrier at points in the cruise, for example if it encounters gusts. But even at Mach1.1, a sonic boom would not hit the ground from a high cruising altitude of 45,000ft (13,700m), says Roundhill.

Boeing's target size for the aircraft is anywhere between 100-300 seats, with a range around 7,000-9,000nm (13,000-16,500km). Operating costs too would have to be within the range of today's airlines. Roundhill talks of a baseline aircraft around the same range and size as a combination of the 777 and 767, and offering the same fuel consumption. But he concedes that all this is based on the assumption that technology, especially for the engines, will have evolved significantly over the next decade.

He also concedes that the configuration could yet shift radically as Boeing talks to airline customers over the next 12-18 months. After that, Roundhill believes there should be enough definition to evaluate if there is a viable programme. He plays down the initial suggestion of a 2006 in-service date, talking instead of first deliveries between 2006-2008, but most likely "towards the end of that timeframe".

It still remains to be seen what airline customers will make of the concept when they start to talk detail. To date, most will only have seen a sketchy 1m model which Roundhill humped around the world in a now-famous battered metal trunk. Interest is reportedly mounting. Mulally quotes one unnamed customer as saying that it would take the first three years of production. Virgin Atlantic has characteristically already put its name down on the interest list, while the concept of a high-speed inter-city flyer could have been invented with British Airways in mind.

The core of the marketing story is time. The familiar headline is that sonic cruiser's speed should shave off around 1h for every 1,600km flown. That would roughly equate to 1h saved on US trans-continental routes, 1-2h on transatlantic flights and 2-2.5h on transpacific service.

Randy Baseler, vice-president marketing, points out that airlines are already seeking out a 15-20% time advantage by replacing connecting services with nonstop subsonic flights. The sonic cruiser would allow that to go a step further.

Although Boeing is adamant that, for the passenger, high-speed will not necessarily mean expensive, in reality the first aircraft would be sure to go onto the most lucrative hub routes where they can earn the highest premium. Only later will they start to filter through to thinner markets. Baseler points out that a non-stop subsonic flight on a long-haul route is still likely to hold a time advantage over a service which connects even if the sonic cruiser flies the main inter-hub leg.

Speed thrills

There are implications too for network scheduling, including a fresh look at departure/arrival times and the possibility of using the extra speed to increase utilisation. "We've thrown something out here that will change networking. We're trying to find out how the market will look," says Baseler. He notes that for the first time it adds in the element of time to the usual fleet equation of seats and range. "Beyond 3-4h it competes with every aircraft size because passengers want the speed," he says.

Not all onlookers are yet as convinced as Boeing would wish. Suspicion lingers in some quarters that this is still a spoiler to draw attention away from the A380 and the apparently unstoppable stream of new business for Airbus.

Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard more or less shrugged off the sonic cruiser, wishing Boeing well in its attempts to reconcile what the European manufacturer deemed irreconcilable goals of speed and fuel burn.

Colin Stuart, Airbus vice-president for marketing, says that his company has indeed looked at what it would take to significantly raise the bar on the current Mach 0.82 cruising speed and determined that it could burn as much as 20% more fuel per seat. On that basis direct operating costs would be 20-25% higher than aircraft in the same seat range and as much as 50% higher than the A380.

There are also doubts thrown in about the claimed block-hour savings being promised by Boeing. Airbus believes 45min is more realistic as a time saving on the transatlantic. For the longest haul flight of New York-Hong Kong the saving would be a relatively modest 1hr 50min (12%) off the current block time of 15hr 40min.

"We don't see passengers willing to pay a premium for those kind of time savings," says Stuart. He further adds that the way clocks and geography work will render a lot of the time savings on long-haul flights irrelevant due to inconvenient arrival or departure times. Boeing, too, acknowledges that the faster speed will not count everywhere and that airline planners will have to revisit their equations.

Fragmentation, Airbus-style

In any case, Airbus is keen to talk about how it can accommodate fragmentation within its existing family, using A330 variants and the new long-range A340-500. Furthermore, Stuart feels that the real argument for segmentation centres not on a new high-speed airliner, but on the growing interest in corporate jets.

Whoever proves to be right and whether or not the sonic cruiser ultimately proves to be a flier, it has been refreshing to see the two aircraft manufacturers getting down to some fundamentals of network and market strategy in a debate which just might have real implications for airline and travelling customers.

Source: Airline Business