Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON

It was back to the boom for Airbus Industrie and Boeing in 1997, as each manufacturer returned to record production levels. Despite some local difficulties in attempting to keep pace with the surge in demand, both are cautiously optimistic of a more settled 1998.

Boeing's highly publicised and expensive struggle to ramp up its production rates probably left its final tally of deliveries in 1997 falling around 25 aircraft short of the 360 predicted at the start of the year. The US manufacturer believes that the bulk of the problems will have been worked off by early in 1998.

It is nevertheless watching closely developments in Asia, and estimates that up to 20 aircraft deliveries could be deferred each year through to 2000 by customers in the region,because of the economic down-turn. With a massive order-backlog still to work off, however, it expects to deliver a record 550 aircraft in 1998, including the Long Beach-built Douglas Products division types.

Airbus also broke new records with its 1997 output of some 185 aircraft, divided around 70% in favour of its single-aisle family. The production rate is set to reach 235 in 1998, and Airbus expects the introduction of the new A340-500/600 models to help boost production rates of its long-range widebodies. The plan is to grow from the current five a month to at least seven a month after 2000.

The launch of the A340-500/600 family in 1997 represented a coup for Airbus, given that its Seattle-based rival was confined to tweaking, but ultimately failing to launch, its ultra-long-range 777-200/300X derivative. A full launch of a new programme to rival the A340-600 is definitely on Boeing's agenda for 1998, with both the long-range777 twinjet and an updated version of the 747-200 being studied. Boeing's timetable to grow the 777's range is however dependent on the development of even more-powerful versions of at least some of the three engine types on the aircraft.

Several landmarks will be passed at Seattle in 1998. The 777-300 is scheduled to go into service with Cathay Pacific in May 1998, while Hapag Lloyd and Transavia are planning to introduce the 737-800 in April. The smallest member of the Next Generation 737 family, the -600, is to have its first flight in January, and to enter service with SAS in September.

In what will certainly be a busy year for Boeing, testing will also begin of the stretched 757-300, which will have its first flight in July, but which is not scheduled to enter service until January 1999, with Condor.

Meanwhile, the consequences of Boeing's mid-1997 acquisition of McDonnell Douglas will continue to work through the system. Production of the MD-80/90 twinjets at the former Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach will be run down during 1998, and the workforce there will be hoping that Boeing stands by its earlier statement that the proposed 100-seat MD-95 has a future in the new commercial product-line. Production of the MD-11, primarily in its freighter version, is set to continue in the near term.

The pace of product developments will be slightly slower at Airbus in 1998, with the only new model set for introduction being its first true long-range twin, the A330-200. Deliveries will begin, to Canada 3000, in April.

More pressing for the Airbus marketing department will be the task of moving closer to the launch of its proposed 747 rival, the 550-650-seat A3XX. Quite apart from the controversy surrounding market demand, the consortium will have to address the issue of the expected $10 billion-plus development cost for the aircraft, which, in turn, is likely to hinge on the successful conclusion to the negotiations over restructuring at the consortium.

Airbus had been targeting late 1998 for a provisional A3XXprogramme go-ahead, but this decision, which is tied to the re-organisation of Airbus into a single entity, is not now expected until early 1999. With Boeing's cancellation of the growth 747 models early in 1997, the A3XX is now the prime potential application of the General Electric-Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance powerplant. The alliance will be working to firm up its plans for its GP7000 in tandem with Airbus' progress on the airframe.

Further down the product chain, the new wave of regional jets is beginning to dominate the market as the smaller turboprops fade. Based on provisional 1997 figures, turboprop sales fell behind those of their jet-powered rivals for the first time, with orders for regional jets close to 350, against fewer than 250 for turboprops.

The regional-jet manufacturers have managed to build successfully on the solid sales achieved in recent years of the 50-seat jet airliners, with offerings now extending down to accommodate as few as 33 passengers. Saab will begin to wind down production of its two turboprop models, the 33-seat 340 and 50-seat 2000, providing even more scope for the regional-jet players to expand their customer bases.

New programmes expected to come to life in 1998 include the 70-seat Bombardier de Havilland Dash 8-400, due to enter service late in the year, while Fairchild Dornier will begin flight-testing of its 328JET. Embraer will roll out its rival RJ-135, a 37-seat derivative of its RJ-145. Both will enter service in 1999.



Source: Flight International