No pain in prospect as cycle gently touches bottom


Three letters and a number have dominated the headlines during the past 12 months: A3XX. And with the go-ahead now given for the aircraft, now officially the A380, interest is going to be just as keen in 2001. Meanwhile, large airliner output has gently touched the bottom of the current cycle, while regional sales continue to boom.

Between them, Boeing and Airbus delivered around 800 aircraft in 2000, as the current output cycle made a gentle "landing". Deliveries are down 12% on 1999's record tally of 914 aircraft - but to put this into perspective, the 2000 total is similar to that of two years ago, which was then an all-time output record.

The fall in output in 2000 was entirely down to Boeing. With the remaining McDonnell Douglas types cleared from stock and a slowdown in 747 output, Boeing's deliveries have fallen by 140 units to 480 aircraft in 2000. Airbus continues to crank up its production, breaking its own records with each new year.

Around 313 Airbus aircraft were delivered in 2000, and this will continue to rise to around 400 by 2002. With Boeing also increasing output by about 10% to 530 aircraft in 2001 and 2002, the two firms' combined deliveries should be back at record levels (930 aircraft) in two years.

Despite some pessimistic predictions 12 months ago, 2000's order tally is expected to be more than one-third higher than that of the previous year, at more than 1,100 aircraft. With the order intake outstripping production, backlog has grown by about 5% to over 3,250 aircraft, split almost equally between Boeing and Airbus.

Boeing regained the sales initiative in 2000 after losing out to Airbus the previous year, and its order tally to the end of November represented 55% of the total. The Europeans nevertheless had a good year, taking around 500 orders. They also devoted huge effort to securing enough commitments to launch the A380, with letters of intent for 50 firm orders from six customers worth $10.8 billion (at current list prices), and will be working to convert these to firm contracts during the first half.

The 50-aircraft tally equates to the number of A380s that Airbus plans to produce annually once output is stabilised, so it will be keen to add more early sales, ensuring a good head start against Boeing's planned 747X Stretch - or any all-new ultra-large design from the Seattle manufacturer.

Many questions remain about Airbus' 550-seat airliner programme, but some should be resolved over the next 12 months. Airbus will also work towards an engineering design freeze, allowing it to confirm the remarkable performance and seat/km economics promised for the aircraft.

Risk-sharing partner agreements also need to be finalised, as will launch commitments for the all-cargo A3XXF version.

Airbus, of course, will no longer be a consortium in 2001 following its restructuring into an integrated company owned by EADS (80%) and BAE Systems (20%). The move will turn the screw on Boeing to reach the correct decision when it considers the launch of the 747X.

Several new Airbus and Boeing projects face make or break decisions, including the planned 220-seat A330-500, 717-100X shrink, and a longer-range 757-200X. Meanwhile, flight-testing of the 380-seat A340-600 is scheduled to begin in May, and production will start later in the year of Airbus' A320 "regional derivative" - the 107-seat A318.

Boeing will begin deliveries of the latest 737 model, the -900, to Alaska Airlines in April. The MDC era will also finally end with the handing over of two remaining MD-11Fs to Lufthansa Cargo during the first quarter.

The regional jet market continues to boom and two new derivatives were launched in 2000 - the stretched Bombardier CRJ900 and Embraer's intermediate-sized ERJ-140. Also, a shake-out saw two programmes killed off during 2000 as Fairchild Dornier cancelled its 44-seat 428JET and Bombardier dropped plans for a new 100-seater, the BRJ-X.

Regional jets chalked up over 670 orders in 2000 (a 27% increase on 1999), while output increased by a further 30% to 280 aircraft. With their burgeoning orderbooks, the regional manufacturers are expected to deliver more than 300 jets in 2001. Included in this tally will be Bombardier's first 70-seat CRJ700s, and the initial ERJ-140s.

More orders at the high end of the regional market are likely in the coming year, as Embraer and Fairchild strive to take market share. Both programmes have large backlogs, but with leasing company and engine supplier GE the biggest customer for each, there is currently an ominous absence of airline customers. Meanwhile, BAE Systems needs to move its Avro RJ-X onto a firmer footing with more launch customers to take it beyond the current two orders and six options. The prototype is due to start testing in 2001.

Turboprop production continues its decline, with just over 100 new aircraft delivered in 2000 - little more than a quarter of the total regional market. Only ATR, Bombardier and Raytheon remain serious players in the new-buy propeller-driven airliner market, as the increasing availability of young second-hand examples displaced by jets muddies the market for new aircraft.

With just 70 new turboprop orders recorded in 2000, output is likely to fall further in 2001. All the manufacturers are working to secure the long-term future of the huge in-service turboprop fleet with plans to set up cargo conversion programmes. Demand for new turboprops is likely to remain, but only in niche markets.

Russia's airliner manufacturers continue to show promise but deliver little as a lack of funding limits the industry's ability to resurrect itself. Various new Russian/CIS jet and turboprop airliners are in development and are well suited to replace the ageing fleets of Russia's airlines. These include new Tupolev Tu-204 models such as the extended-range Tu-214 and Tu-204-300 shrink, new Il-96 derivatives, and the Antonov An-140 turboprop. A 50-seat regional jet, the Tu-324, is also in development.

If government and local banking initiatives to provide funding succeed, output of new-generation airliners could achieve economically viable levels - although Aeroflot's order last month for A320 family aircraft does not bode well.

Source: Flight International