Middleweight champions

Boeing and Airbus have both unveiled new mid-range aircraft, with the 787 taking on the A350. Daniel Wallace looks at the two different planes and what they have to offer.

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By  David Wallace Published  March 27, 2005

|~||~||~|Having jousted for supremacy on the fields of narrowbody and jumbo aircraft, Airbus and Boeing have recently joined battle anew. At stake, this time, will be market leadership in the potentially enormous medium-range widebody market. With both manufacturers estimating the size of the 20-year market at over 3100 units, the stakes are arguably higher than ever. The fast-growing airlines in the Middle East will be at the forefront of this competition, although they have been reluctant to show their cards just yet. Qatar Airways has shown the most interest thus far, and it is reportedly in talks to buy up to 60 Dreamliners or A350s. Kuwait Airways is also seen as a potential buyer, although Emirates has said that it will only be interested in larger versions of the two competing planes. Boeing was first to enter the conflict for mid-range sales, armed with its 767 replacement, the 787 (née 7E7). The European consortium only officially announced in December that it would counter with a new product in the same size class, the A350. Although the size and range of the two competing products are roughly the same, key differences once more highlight just how different are the philosophical lens through which the two companies view the aviation industry. At its 2004 launch, the 787 was known throughout the aviation industry as the 7E7, “E” representing the enhanced efficiency which the new aircraft promised to bring to the table. Scheduled to make its first flight in 2007 and enter into revenue service the following year, the 787 will capitalise on new technologies to achieve those gains and in the process post operating economics superior to the aircraft currently filling the size range. With three size and range versions planned (see box), the 787 is the first new aircraft to come out of the Boeing stable since the popular 777 debuted in 1995. Market interest has been significant, if not overwhelming, with the order book for the new aircraft currently standing at 193 firm orders and commitments (basically the first three years of production), a figure considerably bolstered when six Chinese carriers combined to order 60 of the type in January. In addition to the efficiency gains which will accrue from the continuing evolution of engine technology, the 787 will be constructed with 50% lightweight composite materials (in comparison, the lightest-in its-class 777 is fabricated with only 20% composites), will have an electrical power system and will feature the most advanced aerodynamics presently available. These alterations, vice-president and program manager, Mike Bair says, mean that the 787 will have a take-off weight that is 30 tons lighter than the A350’s, resulting in an aircraft that is 15-20% more fuel efficient. Bair is quick to add that only a third of the efficiency gains will come from the new engines, which will be manufactured by GE Aircraft Engines and Rolls-Royce. As one has come to expect, there is rather a different take on the situation from Europe. Airbus originally stated that there would not be much of a market for a new aircraft in the size range and derided the then 7E7 as being nothing special anyway, relying almost entirely on enhanced engine technology for its improved economics. Indeed, it initially hinted that airlines would be able to capture as much value by merely attaching the new powerplants to its market-leading A330 aircraft. Since then, the Toulouse-based concern has modified its course and, in December, it announced that it would come to market with the A350. Scheduled to enter service in mid-2010, the aircraft will be the same size as the A330 and will host the new generation of engine on its wings, helping it to post 12% better fuel-burn performance than the A330. Marketing manager for long-range products Alan Pardoe says that just over 8% of the improved fuel burn will come from improved engines, with the remainder arising from lighter-weight materials and other design alterations. Two of the key airframe improvements - a lightweight, mostly-composite wing and an all-composite wingbox - were respectively birthed by the design of the A400, the manufacturer’s military transporter, and the A380, its soon-to-fly entry in the jumbo range. Furthermore, he says, some of the advanced new systems integrated into the body of the aircraft will generate 10% lower nonengine-related maintenance costs. Airbus is quick to assert that its new product is in response to its sounding of the market and not the competition. Pardoe explains that its customers, notably including those in the Middle East, had expressed interest in an aircraft capable of missions not covered by the A330/A340 line-up. A mid-market aircraft capable of flying from the Gulf to Southeast Asia and Mainland China was specifically requested. Consequently, he says, the A350 will complement its current long-range champion the A340-500, flying similar distances, but carrying 50 fewer seats. Thus far, the A350’s only order came in December when Air Europa requested 10 with options for two more. However, Pardoe says the plane ‘has attracted enormous interest,’ and he is confident that orders will hit the 50-60 mark when the Paris Air Show convenes in June. ||**|||~||~||~|At first glance, the two archrivals seem — unusually — to be reading from the same sheet. There are, however, key differences in their products and marketing campaigns that suggest that they continue to view the world and their industry in a vastly different manner. A notable area of divergence point that continues to divide the two camps is the value of commonality. Airbus places a premium on its family approach to technology, pointing out that, with a minimum of incremental training, a pilot would be able to fly a 109-seat A318 one day and the 550-seat A380 the next. The benefits of reduced training costs and increased staff flexibility, it says, are a key reason the company has sold more aircraft than its Chicago-based rival over the last few years. Subscribing to the theory that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ Pardoe says that the A350 will conform to the same standards and, even more critically, will even have the same type-rating as its predecessor A330. In contrast, Boeing believes that the benefits of a family approach are over-rated and that more value is driven by taking advantage of new technologies than by applying older systems just because they happen to already be installed in other aircraft. Therefore, the company will defy many industry soothsayers — who had predicted a common cockpit with the 777 — and install a totally new flight deck in the 787. While quick to point out that with just a few days’ training, a pilot will be able to move between the 787 and the 777, and that the cockpit will be recognisable to a pilot working on the 1995 vintage aircraft, Bair says a new flight deck was the way to go. He says that the manufacturer, in consultation with its customer base, weighed the benefits of both a family approach against taking advantage of the new technologies to come to the fore since the 777 launch. Coming from this exercise was a decision that will see the 787 flightdeck instruments and gauges appearing more futuristic than previous iterations. “The cockpit,” Bair laughingly notes, “will look like a TV store.” Another key philosophical difference between Boeing and Airbus seems to be when to bring a new product to the market and when to replace existing models. When the 7E7 was first mooted, Airbus’s vice president for marketing, Colin Stuart, said that his company would not produce another aircraft in the same size range for some time, as the relatively new A330-200 was still the preferred model and Airbus was unconvinced that the 7E7 would change that. The company publicly has not moved from this stance. Pardoe, for instance, asserts that the A350 is not an A330 replacement, and that the new aircraft actually has stimulated renewed interest in its older brother, which has a 200-strong backlog. He, however, does allow that Airbus is pitching new, unconventional, A330 usages, such as military tanker and dedicated freighter applications. These developments hint that a transition to the A350 as Airbus’ only passenger version in the size range is in the works. Pardoe does this theory no harm when he boasts that the technology gap between the A350 and its predecessor is nowhere near as large as it is for the 787 and the aircraft it is replacing. “I would suggest,” he says, “that our competitor waited a bit long before doing anything about the 767.” Boeing, not altogether unsurprisingly, sees it differently. Bair says that by waiting longer it has been able to add new, customer-winning features that will carry the day. “We think that Airbus will see that a derivative cannot compete with a brand new aeroplane,” he says, adding: “By the time the 787 enters service, the A330/A340 line, of which this is an extension, will be 25 years old.” Bair goes on to predict that Airbus will perhaps recognize the folly of this tack and change course. “From the beginning, we fully anticipated there would be a new competitor in this size range, and we are still not sure that the A350 will ultimately be that competitor.” Another subject on which the firms disagree is how to price their new aircraft. Admittedly, the prices published often bear scant resemblance to what airlines actually pay — Boeing’s Bair, for instance, dismisses catalogue prices as “something that, in this industry, are merely an interesting number to divide by.” Still, most agree that the baseline figures afford some picture of what the respective companies command for their new aircraft and, so, are worth analysing. Although Boeing has often accused its rival of resorting to below-market prices to win market share, it, perhaps paradoxically, will post the lower prices in this size class. This represents a surprising development, as the cost of manufacturing the brand-new 787 will be exponentially higher than it will be for the A350. The US company intends to ask for US $120-130 million per aircraft, the same price it charges for the 767-300ER. With its considerable increases in efficiency, range and cargo payload, Bair says the 787 is being priced as “a compelling value proposition.” He adds that the financial condition of the airline industry was a large determinant of the price. “We are putting the product into a customer base that has a tough time making money,” he says. “For us, that was as much a focus as the competition with Airbus.” In contrast, Airbus will offer the A350 at roughly $153 million per aircraft, which represents a 5% premium versus its A330-200 and about 20% versus the 787. Pardoe says that this price is appropriate because it will bring greatly improved fuel burn and a 1700 nautical mile range increase than its older brother and will have 10% more seats than the US product. With neither aircraft even close to first flight, the battle for supremacy of the mid-market range has a way to go before a victor will emerge. But, with both the A350 and 787 projects well underway, the lines have been drawn. Now it is for the market to determine which of the two sides’ strategies prevails. ||**||

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