Economy rules. That was the lesson of a year which saw the death of Boeing's Sonic Cruiser and Concorde, the emergence of the 7E7, and Airbus's A380 moving closer to first flight

The last 12 months have seen the death of speed and the resurgence of economy as the main driver in airline planning, as Boeing ditched its Sonic Cruiser plan to focus on an all-new super-efficient airliner, the 7E7, and the two Concorde operators decided to call it a day. While these two stories were grabbing the headlines, Airbus was quietly getting on with the construction of the first A380.

The industry will never now the answer to the "what if" scenario surrounding the 11 September 2001 attacks which clearly influenced the Concorde and Sonic Cruiser decisions. Had the attacks not happened, would Concorde still be looking ahead to a longer, brighter future, and its operators planning to replace those premium services by the end of the decade with the Sonic Cruiser?

From September 2001, the industry's priorities changed, with survival heading the list. That, combined with a shift in the premium passenger market, brought the 7E7 to the top of the wishlist Boeing was compiling with its key customers. Since its unveiling late last year, the 7E7 effort has moved swiftly and Boeing aims to get board approval by year end to seek customer commitments.

If Boeing sticks to its guns, the 7E7 will be packed with new technologies, not least beneath its wings. The battle to power the new airliner will play out in the coming months, as Boeing wrestles with the decision over how many engine suppliers to have.

Boeing's shorter term focus has been on working through the flight test programme for the new General Electric GE90-115B-powered 777 family, and to secure the long-term future of the 757. Although a recent order for five aircraft was a welcome boost, the threat of closure still hangs over the line as production rate tumbles.

The 777 effort began in February with the first flight of the 777-300ER, which is in the final throes of its certification programme, and will enter service in April with Air France. The smaller, ultra-long range -200LR will begin flight testing in early 2005.

The arrival of these two models gives Boeing a rival to the Airbus A340-500/600 family, as it plays catch-up with its European competitor. The A340-600 has been in service for almost 18 months, and the -500 is about to start flying for Emirates. The latter programme has, however, been delayed, and lost its original launch customer Air Canada which should have taken its first -500 in May but deferred deliveries.

Meanwhile, deliveries also began this year of the mid-life update A330 and A340-300 models, dubbed Enhanced. These incorporate a number of cosmetic changes to the cabin, the A340-600's flightdeck systems, and in the A340-300's case, new engines.

Around Europe, the Airbus factories and their production partners have been ramping up construction of the first A380 components as they work towards the first flight target of early 2005. Major assembly of the first fuselage is set to begin at Hamburg imminently, with final assembly due to kick off in Toulouse in a little over six months.

Despite the downturn and the SARS epidemic, which hit potential Asian customers hard, Airbus has kept up the A380's sales momentum, adding Malaysia Airlines and Korean Air since the turn of the year. The company says it is on track to add at least one new A380 customer a year up to entry into service in 2006.

Source: Flight International