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Superjumbo or white elephant?

Mrs Akido is flying from Sapporo to Fukuoka to visit her mother. While the aircraft is taxiing to the runway, she goes through the safety procedure on her virtual reality screen. In the noise-proofed cabin she cannot hear the roar of the engines, nestling under the 80 metre wingspan, as the aircraft takes off. It is 2005 and she is sitting on the top level of a double decker aircraft carrying 999 fellow passengers. This evening her husband will leave Tokyo for Los Angeles. He will fly on the same type of aircraft, but for the longer flight he will bunk down in the beds provided for first class passengers. The aircraft in this scenario is Airbus Industrie's vision for the next decade. The European consortium plans to develop the A3XX aircraft for launch in 1997/98 to enter service in 2003/04. Adam Brown, vice president forecasting and strategic planning for Airbus, has predicted that 20 years on there will be a market for 864 aircraft with 600-1,000 seats. Brown sees up to eight carriers needing the aircraft, primarily those in the Asia-Pacific area. British Airways has made no secret of its desire to operate a 600-800 seater and Singapore Airlines has also declared an interest. The others include United Airlines and Northwest Airlines for their north Pacific routes, and Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Cathay Pacific for parts of their regional and longhaul networks. The common denominators in this list: high-density routes and congested airports. A merger of two medium-sized carriers could also provide another customer with enough traffic to warrant the use of such a large aircraft. And if economic development continues successfully in China there is also the possibility that one or more of the country's larger carriers will come in to the frame. But this is just Airbus' vision. After a lot of speculation at Boeing about the future viability of a superjumbo, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer is now unwilling to talk about its vision. 'We have always said the market must decide whether this is a viable option,' says Boeing. Indeed, while awaiting the results of the Very Large Aircraft (VLA) study with Airbus' four partners on the feasibility of such a project, Boeing is now far from upbeat about the aircraft ever being built. Privately, the company says it sees the projected launch costs of $15-20 billion as one stumbling block, especially in light of its prediction that there is only a market for 500 of the aircraft. With the B747-400 already in its portfolio, Airbus claims that Boeing is just trying to protect its monopoly at the top end of the market. Indeed a stretch of the -400 would yield a 550 seater at a fraction of the cost of the effort needed to produce an entirely new aircraft. All manufacturers accept that the future growth in traffic will force development of a larger aircraft, but at present Boeing is reluctant to stick its neck out financially. 'In time we will have to find ways to increase capacity without increasing congestion. The large aircraft is one way to achieve that. Of course the other argument is that air traffic control is the solution,' says British Aerospace, which is also involved in the VLA study. But BAe does acknowledge that while the economics of building the stretched 747 are attractive, there would be a pay-off with a larger aircraft in the form of lower operating costs, with the VLA offering better overall economics. The views of Airbus and Boeing represent two sides of a coin. Airbus seems willing to provide equipment based on traffic forecasts. Boeing appears to wants to see evidence of the traffic first. And this is perhaps not surprising. Airbus needs about 10 years to bring its project to production, while Boeing rests secure in the knowledge that it can at least stretch the B747 in considerably less time to cater for the bottom end of the VLA market. But it may be that speed and not size is the priority of the market early in the next century. By then passengers, and therefore airlines, may be demanding supersonic travel rather than flying en masse. But Brown argues that the supersonic transport and the superjumbo do not necessarily preclude each other. If a new supersonic aircraft caters only for the first class passenger then only a 30-40 seat SST is needed and the remainder of the traffic can be accommodated by the superjumbo. But should the market demand a larger SST to carry a wider traffic mix then manufacturers could face the dilemma of how to fund both projects. But the biggest question is whether the size of market predicted in all the studies will actually exist in a decade's time. Futuristic dreams are all well and good, but if the demand isn't there, the SST and superjumbo could both become flying white elephants.
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