The world’s aircraft manufacturers were not without reasons to celebrate as 2015 came to a close. Their key customers in passenger-carrying airlines had shrugged off slower than expected economic output and – buoyed by shrewder management and plunging oil prices – expected to report record-breaking profits globally, in excess of $30 billion.

But other less encouraging trends should have ­restrained any cork-popping as the clock ticked past midnight on New Year’s Eve.

As strong as the order backlogs may now seem, two stories that arose over the festive period highlight cracks in the industry’s ambitious plans for 2016 and, indeed, the next five years beyond.

Mitsubishi Aircraft announced a new delay for the 90-seat Mitsubishi Regional Jet – until mid-2018 – and Airbus on 30 December conceded that it would miss its year-end deadline to deliver the first A320neo.

By themselves, neither event appears too alarming. The MRJ90 represents the first airliner development project in Japan in more than half a century. And even if Airbus misses its deadline by a few weeks, the A320neo is still broadly on track with the schedule that it outlined on programme launch in 2010.

But both programmes represent the vanguard of a five-year transition period. By 2020, Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Comac, Embraer and Irkut will deliver 18 new models, with a sharp rise in overall production. The steep increase in output over the last five years, coupled with the delayed introductions of the Boeing 747-8, 787-8/9 and Airbus’s A350-900, have already curtailed several deliveries, as demand overwhelmed capacity; especially at interiors suppliers.

The next five years represent an era of transition for the industry, with clean-sheet and re-engined designs replacing the generation of airliners fielded between the late-1980s and late-1990s. It happens to coincide with an historic spike in demand, forcing manufacturers to increase production of narrowbodies and some widebody models to levels which seemed absurd only a few years ago.

Managing this transition will require much attention to execution. Much of the risk of technologies such as the 787’s composite fuselage and reliance on electric power systems is retired. But fielding a new generation of fuel-efficient engines is the new challenge.

The record of the past five years shows the industry is more robust than it has ever been, but it will need all of its skill to manage the balance of the decade.

Source: Flight International