Odds and Ends: MH370 tracking; Garuda rules out A380, 747-8; last 747-400 flight; E-Jet vs Turbo-props

MH370 tracking: With Britain’s Immarsat and the Air Accident Investigation Board key to determining the general location of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, The London Telegraph has one of the best narratives of of the behind-the-scenes story of how this came about. The London Independent also has a good story. And here is a story that explains the difficulties of searching in remote oceans.

  • Update, 10:30am PDT: Aviation analyst and former pilot John Nance is profiled in this Puget Sound Business Journal account that includes’ Nance’s theory of MH370. It’s an intriguing theory. He believes this was a deliberate act–either terrorism or murder-suicide–and that once the flight settled out southbound from Malaysia, it was set on auto-pilot and all aboard, including the pilot, were killed by asphyxiation. The airplane flew until it ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean; he even gives a speed and angle-of-attack estimate.

Garuda rules out A380, 747-8: The Australian reports that after planning to order either the Airbus A380 or Boeing 747-8 last year, officials have ruled this out.

Last 747-400 flight: Japan’s All Nippon Airlines plans to complete its last Boeing 747-400 flight this month, ending an iconic era in the country where 747s once ruled the skies.

E-Jet vs Turbo-Props: At the ISTAT conference last week, we reported that Embraer says its E-175 E2 is more efficient than similarly sized turbo props on missions of more than 250 miles. This story in The Economic Times of India follows through on this theme.

Updating the A380: the prospect of a neo version and what’s involved

Recent headlines and this column report that Airbus is considering re-engining the popular A330 with GE Aviation GEnx or Rolls-Royce Trent 1000-TEN power plants. A New Engine Option and other changes would improve the A330’s economy by an estimated 10% percent after offsets for increased drag and weight.

But the A330 isn’t the only Airbus airplane being considered for new engines made popular by the A320neo family. Tim Clark, president and chief operating officer of Emirates Airlines, urged Airbus to improve efficiency of the giant A380 with engine technology found in newer generation aircraft.

How feasible is an A380neo? What are the technological issues? Would there be enough of an economic gain? And is there a market for an A380neo?

The A380 of today

The A380 has been hailed as a highly efficient airliner since it went into service 2008, assuming the giant plane can be filled. But only six years later, the first voices have been raised that this will not continue to be the case should the continuous improvements that have been flowing into the airframe not pick up speed.

The launch of the Boeing 777X also brought focus on the state of the A380 come the latter part of this decade when the 777-9X enters flight testing in advance of its planned 2020 entry-into-service. Tim Clark expressed  that “it is time that the A380 gets an injection of the new technology which is now becoming available for the A320/737 in the form of GTF/LEAP and GE9X for the 777X. “

Before we look into what can be done short-to–mid-term to inject improved efficiency, let’s establish the baseline as it exists today. The A380 is considered by some the most efficient way of flying passengers between two long haul points if there is enough of demand. The competition today is the Boeing 777-300ER and 747-8i.  (Qantas Airways is dropping some A380 flights that have 50% load factors, demonstrating the aircraft is inefficient if the demand is insufficient.)

Let’s assume we want to transport passengers between San Francisco and Hong Kong, one of the longer flights which are made non-stop in both directions. Going West, it takes a Cathay 777-300ER 15 hours and going East, 12 hours, the difference being due to prevailing headwinds going West. For our check, we will use the more demanding of these legs, which then works out as the equivalent of flying 7,200nm. To compare the three different aircraft in a fair way, we need to load them to the same payload, in our case passengers with luggage. We will not consider cargo in this initial analysis. The leg chosen is not one which allows much weight for cargo, but cargo certainly belongs to a complete analysis of an airplane and we will point out where it will affect any conclusions.  

When comparing the standard three-class seating numbers between the OEMs, it is clear these are not made to the same standards of comfort. Airbus has admitted that the A380 is too lightly loaded at 525 passengers. The 777-300ER at nine abreast and 365 seats is equipped with a comfortable 18’’ economy class at 32’’ pitch but the business class is modeled with a non-standard 48’’ pitch. The 747-8i at 467 seats is not laid out to any comfort standards comparable to the other two. To ensure an apples-to-apples comparison we have equipped all aircraft with the same three-class cabin with a standard seating consisting of first class at 81’’ pitch, business class at 60’’ pitch and economy class with 32’’ pitch. Seat widths are 37’’, 22’’ and 18’ respectively and the ratios of the different premium seatings vs. economy are kept the same. Here the aircraft are listed with the in-service year and with their respective payload capabilities:

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Odds and Ends: A330neo; The 12th Man; Boeing’s earnings

Clearing the air on the A330neo, again: Bloomberg News has an extensive story on the prospective development of the A330neo. Following a report from Reuters, these two news articles basically confirm everything we reported in December.

The 12th Man: The Seattle Seahawks, which plays in the Super Bowl Sunday against the Denver Broncos, is well known within the National Football League for its “12th Man.” This is the fan base which has set records for being the loudest fans in football, at a record 137db. They’ve also been recorded on the Richter Scale for their stomping at the Seahawks’ Century Link Field (that’s a local phone company, and the name is routinely shortened to “the Clink”).

Boeing is a corp0rate sponsor of the Seahawks and rolled out its 747-8F house test plane in a new Seahawks livery.

Boeing’s earnings: Boeing reported its 2013 earnings and while they were a record profit, the forecast disappointed and the stock took a major hit Wednesday. The Seattle Times has the recap.

Looking ahead to 2014

Here’s what to look for in 2014 in commercial aviation.

Airbus

A350 XWB: The high-profile A350 XWB program continues flight testing this year. Entry-into-service has been a sliding target. The program is running about 18 months behind original plan and EIS was intended for mid-year following initial delays. Even this has slipped, first to September and then to “the fourth quarter.” Currently first delivery is scheduled in October to launch customer Qatar Airways, which is slated to get four A350-900s this year. Emirates Airlines is listed as getting two of the total of six scheduled for delivery.

A320neo: Lost in the shadow of the A350 program is the A320neo. Final assembly of the first aircraft is to begin in the spring and first flight, followed by testing, is scheduled for this fall. The Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbo Fan is the initial variant. First delivery is scheduled in the fall of 2015.

Others: Airbus continues to evaluate whether to proceed with developing an A330neo. Based on our Market Intelligence, we expect a decision to proceed will come this year. Concurrently with this, we expect most if not all of the remaining 61 orders for the A350-800 to be upgraded to the A350-900 and the -800 program to be officially rescheduled if not dropped. The -800 is currently supposed to enter service in 2016, followed by the A350-1000 in 2017. But recall that as delays mounted on the A350-900, Airbus shifted engineers to the -900 and the -1000 at the expense of the -800. Salesmen have consistently shifted orders from the -800 to the larger models. We long ago anticipated the -800’s EIS would be rescheduled to 2018, following the -1000. The -800’s economics aren’t compelling enough just justify the expensive list price. So we expect Airbus to upgrade the A330 to a new engine option, using either or both of the Trent 1000 TEN and GEnx with PIPs (Performance Improvement Packages) or with some modifications. EIS would be about 2018. This precludes Pratt & Whitney from offering a large version of the Geared Turbo Fan, which wouldn’t be ready by then.

We also expect Airbus and the engine makers to look at re-engining the A380, driven by desires of Emirates Airlines to see a 10% economic improvement. Emirates announced an order for 50 A380s at the Dubai Air Show but instead of ordering the incumbent engine from Engine Alliance for these, Emirates left the engine choice open. This leaves open the possibility the A330neo and the “A380RE” could share an engine choice.

Boeing

After many years of turmoil, 2014 should be quiet for Boeing (now that the IAM issues have been resolved—see below).

787: Barring any untoward and unexpected issues, Boeing seems at long last to be on an upward trajectory with this program—but we’ve said this before. There are still nagging dispatch and fleet reliability issues on the 787-8 fleet to resolve, but flight testing of the 787-9 appears to be going well. Certification and first delivery should come without trouble this year, to launch customer Air New Zealand.

737: Nothing to report on the Next Generation program except ramp-up to a production rate of 42/mo is to take effect this year. Development continues on the 737 MAX.

Others: The 777 Classic is humming along. Now that the 777X is launched, we’ll be closely watching sales for the Classic; Boeing has a three year backlog but six years to 777X’s EIS. How is Boeing going to fill this gap, and what kind of price cuts will be offered to do so?

The 747-8 continues to struggle, barely holding on. Boeing says it thinks the cargo market will recover this year, boosting sales of the 747-8F. We’re dubious.

The 767 commercial program continues to wind down. The 767-based KC-46A program ramps up.

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Odds and Ends: 787 software; Hazy on 777X; 787 reliability; A340 lemon; 777X won’t be built in WA: MO politician; Chinese war games

787 software: Aviation Week reports that continuing software issues bedevil the Boeing 787.

AvWeek also takes a closer look at Japan Airlines’ decision to take the 787 off certain routes due to the icing issues of the GEnx engines. Most incidents occurred on the 747-8 but one happened on the 787. The 747-8 also uses the GEnx engine.

Hazy on 777X: Steve Udvar-Hazy, CEO of Air Lease Corp and one of the most influential people in commercial aviation, offered his assessment of the 777X specifications in an interview with Aviation Week. He also commented on the future of the A350-800 and the prospect of an A350-1100.

787 reliability: Aviation Week also reports about Boeing’s efforts to improve the reliability of the 787.

A340 Lemon: Bloomberg News, tipped by our select e-newletter distribution yesterday, wrote this story about an Airbus summit to discuss the future of the A340 family in the secondary market. We’ll publish our e-newsletter for general readership with an expanded version next Monday in this column.

Boeing will nix WA for 777X: So says a Missouri politician. KOMO TV (ABC Seattle) ran a piece yesterday in which a Missouri politician said all indications they’ve had from Boeing is that the 777X won’t be built in Washington State. The clip is not on the KOMO website, however, but we saw it while watching the news.

Pacific War Games: “War is Boring,” a blog, ran a war game involving the current Chinese action declaring a defense identification zone in airspace between China and Japan. We’ve no clue over the quality of this blogger or the war game, but we were reminded that the Pentagon had war game scenarios that were important in the KC-X competition. This was one reason the Northrop Grumman-EADS KC-330 MRTT won the competition (later overturned)–because of the vast distances involved in the Pacific and the assumption that China may be successful in a conflict of what’s called Anti-Access, Access Denied (A2AD) that would have isolated US bases in Guam and Japan. The USAF concluded the EADS KC-330′s longer range vs Boeing’s KC-767, greater loiter time and greater refueling capacity was important to the selection.

Airbus, Boeing production backlogs stretch to late this decade, early next decade

Airbus and Boeing production backlogs stretch to late this decade and into the beginning of next decade for most of their commercial aircraft, based on today’s production rates.

We previously wrote about the waning sales of the 777 Classic and the A330. Some mainstream media subsequently examined 777 Classic sales but not the A330 sales.

Both OEMs will be challenged to meet intended production timelines for select currently in-production models.

  • Airbus and Boeing officials each said they plan to build the A320ceo and 737NG families two years into the entry-into-service of the A320neo and 737 MAX families. Airbus’ ceo backlog appears to meet this desire, but the 737NG currently has a backlog that only matches the 2017 EIS of the 737 MAX.
  • Airbus says it plans to produce the A330 into the 2020 decade (most statements suggest until about 2022).
  • Boeing has a 2020 EIS for the new 777X program, but the backlog of the 777 Classic currently extends only to 2017.
  • The USAF wants replacements for its 747-200 presidential fleet in 2021 but Boeing’s backlog for the 747-8 only extends to 2017.

The following chart is based on current backlogs reported by Airbus and Boeing in respective data charts; and it is based on the current production rates of each program. For the new airplane programs, the chart assumes the current production rate and does not take into account the stepped ramp-up for the A320neo, the 737 MAX, the A350 XWB or the 777X. For the latter two, production rates are assumed at the A350′s announce plan of 10/mo and the 777 Classic rate of 8.3/mo. The 787 rate is assumed at 10/mo, although the rate is not quite there yet.

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Points to ponder in Boeing 777X site selection

Boeing last month issued Requests for Proposals from 15 states and locations for some or all of the work for its new 777X.

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Deadline for responding to the RFP is mid-December, essentially three short weeks away.

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Richard Aboulafia, a consultant with The Teal Group, marked Boeing’s shopping around the 777X assembly site appears more driven by anger at one of its unions than by economic sense.

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The RFPs were issued in the wake of the International Association of Machinists IAM District 751 rejecting the contract Boeing offered on November 13, a quid pro quo: accept deep concessions on pension, health care and wage progression in exchange for siting the 777X assembly at Everett (WA), where the 777 Classic is built.

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IAM 751 members, who provide the touch labor, rejected the contract with 67% of the vote.

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Boeing’s scouring the nation is viewed as a plan to get away from unions. However, here are some things to ponder:

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A380 orders boost backlog but future risk remains

The order by Emirates Airlines for 50 more Airbus A380s had been hinted at for some time, and it is certainly welcome for the backlog. This deal, coupled with the MOU announced at the Paris Air Show for 20 from lessor Doric, expected to be firmed up by year end, adds 70 orders to the long-stalled total count, which was 259 prior to either deal (net of three cancellations from Lufthansa Airlines). This now brings Airbus to 329 orders.

It’s still well short of the 650 orders Airbus expects to snare over the next 20 years from its September 20-year forecast. These expectations are on top of the existing order stream, and a figure that hasn’t changed much since its first Very Large Aircraft forecast in 2000.

(The current forecast is for about 1,300 VLA passenger models; Airbus expects to receive 50% of the market. This is before the 777-9X, barely qualifying as a VLA at a nominal 407 passengers, entered the picture. Up to now, Airbus has been capturing nearly 90% of the VLAP market against Boeing’s 747-8I.)

AIN Online beat us to our plan to assess the future risks for the A380, particularly as it heads into the secondary market, with this analysis. We agree with the broad conclusion that there will be little secondary market opportunity for the airplane beginning in 2020 when the first of Emirates Airlines’ behemoths start coming off lease.

One lessor, who is not an A380 owner, says it will cost about $20m to reconfigure an A380 in a typical three-class layout with the usual bells and whistles. Doric Lease, in an interview with Bloomberg, says Airbus needs to standardize configuration to make re-leasing the giant plane easier.

Odds and Ends: Boeing Everett; SkyWest raises doubts about MRJ; Boeing and Charleston on 777X

Boeing’s Everett Footprint: With the news that Boeing will build 1.5m sf of space for a new 777X Final Assembly Line and wing production facility if the IAM 751 members ratify the new contract and Washington State ponies up on incentives, the obvious question is: what happens with the current Everett plant?

It had been assumed the 777X would be built in the current facility, integrating with and ultimately replacing the current 777 line; or starting off in the space now occupied by the 747-8, which is struggling to stay alive and which many–ourselves included–believe will die off with the advent of the 777-9.

Let’s consider this latest twist.

  • The 787 Line 1 is assumed to eventually reach a production rate of 7/mo, with Charleston also target for 7/mo, with the goal of the combined lines going to the announced rate of 14/mo by 2018/19.
  • The KC-46A tanker, which occupies half of one bay, goes to two a month in a few years, though it has capacity to go to three. The other half of this bay is currently occupied by the 787 surge line, but in theory this is supposed to go away once Charleston is up to rate 3. Boeing now says this will happen in the first quarter (it was supposed to by year end) but this may not be achieved by then, according to some. But one has to believe Charleston will be ready to rock by 2016, when the 777X is gearing up.
  • The current 777 line, now at 8.3/mo rate, is assumed to have a two year overlap from 777X EIS, or around 2022, when it’s been assumed the current generation 777 would be discontinued. But the 777-200LRF may live on, both in its current form and as a replacement for the KC-10 tanker. Although the USAF is reportedly looking at a 2040 procurement date for the KC-10 replacement, some believe this is too far out into the future and this date will be brought forward.
  • Then there is the 747-8 production space. It’s also assumed this airplane is living on borrowed time. The USAF says it wants to replace the Air Force One fleet in 2021, and this is a long time to keep this line alive. Boeing is counting on the cargo market to return in 2014 to spur demand of the 747-8F, but some believe main-deck freighters of this size will have a very tough time when cheap 747-400 conversions can be had for a fraction of the cost.
  • If space at the primary Everett plant does open up, what is there to fill it if not the 777X? Any number of potentials: the Y-1 737 replacement, closing the Renton factory in the process and splitting the Y-1 between Washington and South Carolina (or Texas, or some off-shore location). A maintenance, repair and overhaul operation: Boeing wants to dramatically increase this service business. Component production.

Over to Readers for your thoughts.

Meanwhile, The Puget Sound Business Journal has this long story on the expected use of robots in building the 777X.

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Airbus’ A350-1000 dilemma

Airbus has a dilemma with what to do about the A350-1000.

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Does the OEM stick with the -1000 as it is, ceding the 400 seat segment to Boeing with its new 777-9X? Or does it stretch the -1000 (we’ll call it the “1100″ for a placeholder) for what appears to be a very limited market segment?

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If Airbus does stretch the -1000, what does this stretch look like? One that will match the 9X range and capacity? Or one that matches the capacity but not the range?

Here are the implications of the dilemma facing Airbus.

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Stay the Course

For a long time, Airbus officials said they were satisfied with the design, once tweaked, of the -1000 and they didn’t need to respond to a “paper” airplane. The characterization had a ring to it, for that’s what Boeing officials often said about the -1000: it wasn’t a “real” airplane, they didn’t know what it was, it was a “paper” airplane or some variation thereto.

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Of course, this was rhetoric by both parties. Lufthansa Airlines ordered 34 777-9s. A huge order+option commitment is anticipated at the Dubai Air Show from Emriates Airlines for the -9 and the smaller, ultra-long range (ULR) -8 that is sized directly across from the -1000. Airbus is now faced with the prospect of Boeing once more having a monopoly position with the 777-9 as it did for many years with the 777-300ER.

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Does Airbus want to cede the 400-seat segment to a Boeing monopoly? The question is, how big is this segment? Is there a business case to build the airplane, or one that’s big enough for two airplanes?

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Boeing’s current 20 year forecast indicated there is a need for 4,530 “small” twin aisle, 200-300 seat jets and 3,300 for “medium” twin aisle jets, 300-400 seats, for a total 7,830. Airbus forecasts a need for 4,694 250-300 seat jets and 2,085 350-400 seaters, for 6,779 jets, a difference of nearly 1,100-but, then, Airbus doesn’t have a competitor to the 787-8 at the lower end of the small jet sector.

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Airbus further breaks out its forecast: 2,438 250-seat and 2,256 300-seat jets within the “small” twin; and 1,306 350-seat and 779 400-seat jets within the “medium” twin category. Boeing doesn’t subdivide its forecast.

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The 777-9 will kill the near-dormant 747-8 Intercontinental and will likely eat into sales of the Airbus A380. Does Airbus avoid cannibalizing its own product or does it allow Boeing the monopoly to do so?

A350 Range

Source: Great Circle Mapper

Match the 777-9

Airbus could decide that, despite a its own narrow forecast for a 400 seat segment, it would be better to play in this sandbox, whatever the impact on the A380, than to cede this segment to Boeing. The question then arises, does an A350-1100 match the 777-9 in seats (or come close to it) and range, around 8,100nm-8,400nm?

To match means a major undertaking for a small number of airlines that need a plane with this range. It means a new wing–typically a $3bn project, more or less–and new engines in the 104,000-105,000 lb thrust range. The Rolls-Royce Trent XWB on the A350-1000 is 97,000 lbs and it can’t be pushed any farther, our information tells us. The cost of developing an entirely new engine for such a narrow market doesn’t have a business case. One might exist on the presumption that engines have to get bigger, and a new engine design would provide the basis for an entirely new generation of engines. After all, the Trent fundamentally has been around since the A330. It may well be time, but is an A350-1100 the product from which to develop it? Furthermore, it takes at least seven years to develop a new engine and probably a lot longer. The engine is the pacing item, far more than the airframe. Even if the go-ahead were given this minute, Airbus and RR would be hard-pressed to come up with an A350-1100 by 2020, when the 777-9 EIS is anticipated. So…

The 787-10 Approach
The most viable option for stretching the A350-1000 appears to be following the approach Boeing took with the 787-10: a couple of simple fuselage plugs, some enhancements to the existing engines, the same wing and reduced range that covers 90% of the markets required by the airlines–foregoing the miniscule need by Emirates Airlines for that last 5%-10%.

DXB ranges

Source: Great Circle Mapper

An A350-1100 with reduced range of 7,000nm-7,500nm and a 400 seat capacity would have highly favorable cost per available seat miles. It wouldn’t get you from Paris to Tahiti, but how big is this market? It wouldn’t get you from Dubai to Los Angeles, but are billions of dollars worth of R&D to do so going to get the return on investment to make sense for this airplane?

The clear choice, the financially responsible choice, and the expeditious choice appears to follow the Boeing approach and develop an A350-1100 (or, perhaps, the “A350-1000-10″).