So far, this has been a year of stark contrast for the Airbus A340 and Boeing 777. As the champagne corks are popping in Seattle following the success of the Boeing twinjet in its latest head-to-head with the Airbus quad at Cathay Pacific, there may be some difficult questions being asked in Toulouse.

For while Boeing has just had its most successful year ever for 777 sales since the programme was launched in 1990, with 118 orders at the latest count, A340 sales have slumped to just 14. This threatens to make 2005 the long-range widebody’s worst year this decade – during a period of record-breaking order numbers.

The Cathay selection pushes total sales of the General Electric GE90-powered 777-200LR/300ER family to 180 aircraft (excluding the 777 Freighter), compared with 141 for its rival, the Rolls-Royce Trent 500-powered A340-500/600. Cathay’s decision to order the 777-300ER is significant, coming a week after the massive Emirates deal for 42 777s signed in Dubai. Both airlines are major customers for the A340 and R-R engines. These scalps for the 777 came on the heels of earlier successes this year at key Airbus customers Air Canada and Qatar Airways. Airbus has one more chance to get one over its rival this year, as Qantas is poised to decide between the 777 and A340, but the omens are not looking good.

Airbus will of course argue that these things go in cycles, and it has enjoyed some good sales success with the A340-500/600 amid some barren years for its rival as it scrabbled to make the 777 competitive. When Airbus created the A340-500/600 family in 1997, it set a new datum for long-range airliner performance and left Boeing pondering some bizarre solutions in its quest for a rival 777-300 variant – remember the curious thrusting auxiliary power unit proposal it studied to achieve the required amount of engine thrust to match the A340-600’s payload/range? There was even some speculation that Boeing might have to adopt a four-engined configuration for the 777 until GE came to the rescue with the GE90-115B. The 777-200LR/300ER family was the result.

So Airbus made hay while Boeing played catch up, but is now paying the price for being first to market – as it did a decade ago with the original A340. On both occasions, when Boeing finally got its act together it has been able to systematically turn over A340 customers.

So what’s suddenly gone wrong for the A340-600? For starters, the aircraft’s image has been tarnished by its underwhelming reliability since its introduction, and it is still patchy three years after service entry.

And since Airbus’s decision to launch its own ultra-long-haul twinjet, the A350, the manufacturer’s much-heralded position that, for very long missions, only four engines will do, has been weakened significantly. While those four powerplants may give some passengers comfort on long flights over uninhabited parts of the globe, airlines have begun to question the cost and weight penalties as fuel prices soar.

Even Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson – whose A340-600s proclaim the slogan “4 engines 4 long haul” on their nacelles – conceded recently that the quadjet had a fuel burn penalty over a twinjet. But just one loss of a twinjet mid-ocean due to an engine-related issue – be it an Airbus or a Boeing – could conceivably turn the whole long-haul business on its head and force airlines to re-evaluate four engines.

But with no let up in sight for the success of the 777, what should Airbus do? One option would be for it to design a “me-too” large twinjet, but this is unlikely to provide a tangible advantage over the existing 777, and any powerplant improvements would be directly applicable to its rival.

Wisely, Airbus has instead been quietly working on an “enhanced” A340-500/600 derivative that could enter service around six years from now. As exclusively revealed by Flight International last week, this new family would incorporate some elements of the A350, including its new-generation engine technology, providing lower operating costs and potentially a significant increase in range.

If Airbus gets the specification right, this new aircraft will re-benchmark the large long-haul market sector, and again leave Boeing and the 777 scrabbling to respond. If it gets it wrong, then champagne imports into the Seattle area could skyrocket.


Source: Flight International