Airbus and Boeing continue to dispute the sales prospects for large airliners

Max Kingsley-Jones/PARIS

Airbus Industrie and Boeing renewed their long-term debate over the size and timing of demand for very large capacity aircraft at the Paris air show by releasing their market forecasts for the next 20 years. Airbus has revised downwards its estimate for the A3XX passenger market for the second consecutive year, but increased the overall forecast by including freighter demand. It publicly remains fully committed to the 480/660-seat, $12 billion project.

Both manufacturers estimate the value of the whole jet market at $1.3-1.4 trillion and passenger traffic growth at about 5% annually. But direct comparisons between the two forecasts are complicated by the two rivals' different definitions of catchment and demand and their slightly different category breakdowns. The large aircraft sector, however, is one area where direct comparisons can be made. It is here that the rivals have clearly opposing views.

While Boeing tackles the whole jet market from 50 seats upwards for its forecast, the Airbus analysis starts at 70 seats and focuses on the specific requirements of 359 airlines and cargo carriers. Airbus includes freighters this year for the first time. As such the starting point for both manufacturers is slightly different (Airbus counts 11,500 airliners in the current jet fleet while Boeing's total is 12,600), resulting in different finishing points as well.

Airbus expects 15,500 new jet airliners to be delivered between now and 2018 (14,750 passenger aircraft and 750 freighters), equating to an average annual value of $65 billion. Boeing forecasts 20,150 deliveries over the same period, including 650 freighters. Both companies agree that demand will be highest for narrowbodied 100-200 seaters (ie A320 family, Boeing 737 and 757), a field in which over 8,000 deliveries are expected. Both also see strong demand for the intermediate widebodied types (ie A300/A330/A340 and 767/777) with forecasts of 4,500-5,000 plus deliveries.

It is the crucial large-capacity end of the market (ie, the 400-seat plus category, including the A3XX, high-density 747s/derivatives and any new Boeing project) where the two rivals' views most conflict, both in overall size and the timing of demand. The root of this difference in opinion centres upon their estimates of air traffic growth. Boeing is far more optimistic than Airbus that great strides will be made in airport and air traffic infrastructure, estimating that flights will increase by over 120% as against the European view that it will be around 95%.

Boeing argues that demand for frequencies, rather than individual aircraft capacity, will see more long-range intermediate widebodies sold (ie, 777s and A330/A340s). The company estimates 730 passenger aircraft with over 400 seats will be delivered, plus around 200 freighters, putting total demand at around 930 units.

Airbus expects the world's top 25 airports to absorb almost one-third of the total capacity increase: as infrastructure both on the ground and in the air reaches capacity, airlines will have no alternative but to move to larger aircraft to meet the demand for seats. It expects 1,208 passenger aircraft to be delivered with over 400 seats, worth more than $260 billion.

"Given the level of congestion and flight delays, the severe environmental constraints on runway development and the lagging investment in new air traffic management systems, the achievement of a 95% increase in flights is a very substantial challenge," says Adam Brown, Airbus vice-president strategic planning. "If this [flight growth] cannot be achieved, even more large aircraft will be needed," he adds.

The consortium has for the second consecutive year revised downwards its estimate for the market of passenger aircraft with over 400 seats, having estimated demand at 1,440 in 1997 and 1,295 in 1998.

Of the 1,208 deliveries forecast in this year's survey, the majority (560 aircraft) will be in the 500-seat category, says Airbus. Interestingly, the consortium expects a need for around 50 1,000-seaters over the next 20 years to operate routes currently served by the small fleet of very-high-density 580-seat 747s.

Airbus has increased the overall forecast for the A3XX category to over 1,500 units by including freighters for the first time. It estimates that 300 all-freighters with more than 80t payload will be delivered through to 2018, representing 40% of all new freighter deliveries during the period.

Boeing is relatively pessimistic about the overall demand for very large aircraft in the near term. "We believe that only 360 of the 930 deliveries will be in the A3XX-100/200 category [ie over 500 seats], and demand won't really begin until well into the next decade," says Randy Baseler, Boeing vice-president marketing. "Of the 360 aircraft, we see only 80 deliveries in the first 10 years [1999-2008]," he says.

Undaunted by its rival's warnings, Airbus continues to work towards an A3XX launch decision during 2000, to ensure that deliveries can begin in 2005. "We will only launch next year if we get commitments from customers," warns John Leahy, senior vice president commercial.

Source: Flight International