THE 800-SEAT AIRLINER is, it appears, an idea whose time has not yet come. Boeing and the Airbus partners have put the concept on ice, at least for several months, because the airlines have not demonstrated enough enthusiasm to justify proceeding with it. In the short-term, that is probably the most sensible decision - but it is one which may yet return to haunt those who have made it.

Throughout the history of air transport, the drive has always been for bigger and faster. The drive for "faster" faltered in the 1970s with the political and economic troubles of the first-generation supersonic Concorde and Tupolev Tu-144, but the drive for "bigger" has continued almost without hesitation - until now. Have the airlines and the manufacturers lost their nerve, or are the prospects for the air-travel market not as rosy as their forecasts imply?

All the published predictions show global air traffic growing continuously well into the next century. Yes, these may be optimistic, but history is on the side of those who believe that, while the rate of traffic growth may periodically slow or even go negative, traffic itself will rarely, if ever, drop.

While the behaviour of traffic may be infinite in scope, the environment in which it must travel and the infrastructure which supports it are not. Airports will become more crowded, while opportunities for expanding existing airports or building new ones at or near major destinations will become ever more limited.

Restrictions on airport operating hours are unlikely to become less strict, even if airliners become significantly less noisy. All those factors will inevitably push the airlines towards operating fewer, larger, aircraft as the only practical way of satisfying the opposing demands of the market and operating restrictions. There are those who will argue that the "fewer/larger" argument is flawed, and that the solution will be more services with smaller aircraft bypassing the major hubs. That implies that other destinations will inevitably acquire hub status, with the equally inevitable problems posed by congestion and operating limitations - meaning a problem transferred rather than one solved.

It should be no surprise that every time a "quantum-leap" airliner has been launched, it has seemed to be ahead of the market. Cases of an airliner, once launched and in service, being too big for the developing market have been rare indeed. The reverse has, in fact, been the case: there has hardly been a successful airliner which has not been stretched at least once to keep pace with the market.

The problem for airlines and manufacturers therefore becomes not whether an aircraft of, say, 800-seat capacity will be needed, but when. The answer to that depends to a large extent on how quickly and how successfully existing designs can be stretched to act as stopgaps.

Perhaps for the first time in civil-aviation history, that problem is one of economics alone, and not of technology. The engines for a stretched Boeing 747 or Airbus A340 are available; so do the systems; so does the structural and aerodynamic expertise. The economics are much more problematical.

The potential stretches effectively offer more of an incremental than a quantum-leap increase in capacity, but they will still cost a great deal of money.

The manufacturers must design and certificate what are at the very least significantly altered aircraft. The airlines will have to buy an aircraft which not only costs more to make, but whose development costs, because the potential market is smaller than has been the case for the 747, will have to be amortised across fewer airframes. The airports, already having difficulty in coping with multiple 747 arrivals, must build bigger gates, bridges and terminals. If they are going to go to all that expense, why not go the full distance, straight to the 600- or 800-seater?

Certainly, the bigger aircraft would require a much greater development budget - far beyond the resources of any single manufacturer to fund. If the market dictates that larger aircraft will have to be built, perhaps it would be better to take the plunge now, rather than spending money on the interim solution as well. Putting the plans for the 800-seater on ice might seem a prudent solution in a cold climate - but all concerned should remember what can happen when the ice melts.


Source: Flight International