On the face of it, the big two airframers are taking very different approaches to future aircraft designs – and crucially their propulsion systems.

By revealing a trio of concepts, each based on a hydrogen powertrain, Airbus has nailed its colours to that particular mast.

Notably, the company argues that battery technology is not improving quickly enough to support its introduction on commercial aircraft within a 15-year development horizon.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Boeing has seemingly taken an opposing position, arguing that technological and regulatory hurdles will prevent hydrogen power’s uptake in the near term.

Zero Emission Comment-c-Airbus

Source: Airbus

In the meantime, the airframer’s focus remains on the incremental gains to be researched via its ecoDemonstrator programme.

It could be argued, of course, that these two world views are not mutually exclusive and to some extent depend on the definition of “near term”.

Besides, Boeing is right: there are huge obstacles for hydrogen to overcome before it can be rolled out for widespread use: new propulsion architectures and onboard storage systems must be developed; regulators have to be convinced it is safe; and the logistics of providing the fuel at airports needs to be addressed.

And, without a means to produce hydrogen via low-carbon methods, its clean credentials can vanish. 

In addition, the benefits from lower noise and small percentage-point improvements in fuel consumption will be felt by airlines today – not decades in the future.

Nonetheless, the fact that Airbus is so clearly championing a new propulsion technology – and attempting to claim the high ground around the decarbonisation of aviation – speaks volumes.

The airframer certainly has its own financial and structural issues to deal with on the back of slumping demand for new airliners, but it is at least attempting to spark debate about the industry’s direction.

Boeing, on the other hand, seems paralysed; there are so many fires burning in Seattle – several ignited by its own actions – that management attention seems to be entirely absorbed.

Perhaps the US airframer is working away in the background on its big idea for what a next-generation airliner looks like, but at the moment, those efforts are not at all clear.

While it is tempting to blame Boeing’s stasis on the twin blows of the 737 Max and the market, perhaps other factors are also at play.

When it unveiled a multibillion-euro bailout for the aerospace industry in June, the French government was careful to tie its largesse to improvements in environmental performance for fear of angering the increasingly influential green lobby. Meanwhile, the current US administration is led by an arch-climate change denier.

Every organism adapts to its changing environment or ultimately faces extinction. That truism also applies to business: whither Kodak, for instance?

Airbus clearly believes that the world in which it operates is changing and it must change too. Boeing is presumably not blind to the reality of the market, but the question remains whether the blood and treasure required to deal with its immediate crises will leave it hamstrung in the long term.