Vote for the Top Commercial Aviation stories of 2013

This is self-explanatory. We’ll publish the results December 31.

Feel free to nominate other stories in Reader Comments.

Does 777X assembly site matter to airlines? Yes, up to a point; and a retrospective to 2009

As Boeing awaits responses to its Requests for Proposals from 15 sites around the US and possibly Japan, Washington State officials, company employees and other stakeholders fret that Boeing will choose someplace other than Everett (WA).

Everett has all the logical advantages: the 777 Classic is assembled here. There are vast, mature facilities here. There is an experienced workforce here. As we note in our previous post today, there are a lot of points to ponder when it comes to choosing a site.

But what about the airlines? Do they care where the airplane is assembled?

This isn’t entirely clear. Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways said at the Dubai Air Show they want the airplane built at one location, in the US, not outsourced to a bunch of countries and industrial partners in the fashion of the Boeing 787–an industrial model that proved disastrous for Boeing and the customers.

But do they care whether the 777X is built at Everett, Boeing South Carolina or some other site? Emirates and Qatar didn’t say, at least publicly. Etihad Airlines, another launch customer for the 777X, hasn’t said anything publicly. The first customer for the X told us that what’s important to it is an accessible location for inspections–in other words, a location with good air service, which could be one-stop connecting service.

This would rule in any of the cities that have been mentioned publicly in Boeing’s RFP search. It would rule out a city like Moses Lake (WA), which has ambitions of becoming an aerospace cluster but which has no airline service. The closest major airport is Spokane (WA), a 90 minute drive. Sea-Tac International Airport is a three hour drive. Lufthansa seems unconcerned whether Everett or another site is the choice.

Lufthansa is also not a 787 customer, but officials are well aware of the issues and delays involved in the program. It seriously considered ordering the 787-10 but for route system operational requirements chose instead the Airbus A350-900. But for some 787 customers, assembly location does matter. We understand from our sources that some customers want their Dreamliners assembled in Everett, not Boeing South Carolina, where by most accounts slow production rates and quality control issues remain a challenge.

Retrospective to 2009

As we sort through the events surrounding the IAM 751, Boeing and the 777X, we went back and re-read some of the coverage from 2009 when Boeing put 787 Line 2 in Charleston. There are some similarities–notably Sen. Patty Murray’s involvement then and now–and a lot of differences. Here are links to our posts; be sure to click through to the links of newspaper coverage contained within our posts. Reading the stories linked have amazing relevance to recent events.

Boeing talks a sham: This story, in The Everett Herald, paints a much different picture than:

How South Carolina won the deal. Also: The click-through to The Everett Herald story from this link has a familiar ring to our “loyalty” post of November 21.

Back to today:

Stan Sorscher of SPEEA, the Boeing engineers’ union, has a guest column in The Huffington Post, taking Boeing to task (not a particular surprise) over the current site search and efforts to cut benefits with the IAM 751 “because they can.”

Danny Westneat, a columnist for The Seattle Times, wrote Sunday that perhaps Washington State should look beyond Boeing for aerospace. This isn’t new. We advocated this in October 2009 (just days before Boeing announced it would put the 787 Line 2 assembly in Charleston) at the Governor’s Aerospace Summit conference in Spokane (WA). Be sure to click on the link to the PPT presentation, too.

Odds and Ends: 777X site; A380 reconfiguration; 777 flashback; PNAA’s 13th annual conference; A350; MC-21

Build 777X “where it makes the most sense:” A Boeing executive, in a CNBC interview, said the 777X would be built “where it makes the most sense.”

CNBC writes that Shephard Hill, president of Boeing International, said, “Honestly, we’re looking within the United States at this point because of the large infrastructure we have there. But again, with the mandate to do it on time, to do it in a quality way, that will drive the decision.”

Meanwhile, Alabama officials revealed they talked with Boeing about locating “some [777X] work” at Boeing’s Huntsville operation. Stories are here and here.

A380 reconfiguration: After our post concerning the secondary market of the Airbus A380 and a figure cited by a lessor that it could cost as much as $20m to reconfigure the airplane (assuming all bells and whistles), we received two emails from readers giving a different perspective.

One wrote that Airbus took the Emirates Airlines specification, which is not as customized as perceived, and outlined three scenarios for reconfiguration.

  • Simply change the cabin colors: $600,000 from Airbus and $500,000 for Buyer Furnished Equipment (BFE).
  • Change three class to two class, with only the upper deck changing: $3.6m in Airbus costs, $1.6m for BFE.
  • High-density, all Y-class, both decks: $4.3m for Airbus costs, $3.5m for BFE.

Another reader wrote that the $20m figure is correct if all existing cabin stuff is tossed and the reconfiguration starts from scratch, but seats and other equipment could be sold to reduce the cost. Going one class, this reader wrote, had a price of between $8m-$10m (slightly higher than that reported by the first reader) and a two class configuration would cost about $5m, roughly the same as noted above.

Flashback on 777 successor: Jon Ostrower, when he was with Flight Global, Tweeted out a flashback down memory lane when we did a podcast with him six years ago, talking about a Boeing 777 successor. We looked pretty smart back then, as it turns out.

PNAA’s 13th Annual Conference: The Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance has released the agenda for its 13th Annual Conference held Feb. 4-6, 2014, in Lynnwood (WA), north of Seattle and south of Everett. Crafted well before the Boeing 777X events of last week, the conference is entitled “What’s Driving Change in the Aerospace Industry”.

Boeing says it will decide within three months where it will build the 777X, or in December or January, the latter just before the conference. Whatever this decision, this specific action will clearly come up at the conference, though it is not specifically a topic on the agenda.

We’re presenting on the State of the Airline Industry on the first day and share a panel on the third day with analysts Michel Merluzeau of G2 Solutions and Richard Aboulafia of The Teal Group. We’ve done this panel each year for several years now, and it’s a free-wheeling discussion of what we’ve heard throughout the conference and events generally.

This conference has now become the largest of its kind on the US West Coast, with nearly 450 attendees this past February. The Big Four airframe OEMs, the Big Three engine OEMs and a host of suppliers and lessors present.

MC-21 program update: ATO.ru, a Russian publication, has this update on the Irkut MC-21 program.

A350-1000: Akbar Al-Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, is known for his about-faces at a whim, so much so that he has the nickname U-Turn Al. Once a vocal critic of the Airbus A350-1000, he now says it is a great airplane, according to this interview in Gulf Business. He urges Airbus to consider a larger version of the plane.

Airbus’ A350-800 dilemma

Last week we discussed Airbus’ A350-1000 dilemma. The -1000 will be a fine airplane, but we concluded the company needs to go forward with a larger capacity “A350-1100″ to match the size of the Boeing 777-9X, but take the Boeing 787-10 approach and be content with sacrificing range in lieu of designing a new wing and engines.

Airbus’ A350 dilemma doesn’t end there. What’s it to do with the A350-800? One fleet planner told us a year or more ago that the “-800 is an expensive A330-300″ with the same operating costs as the larger capacity A350-900.

Airbus has been encouraging customers to move up to the larger A350-900, with Hawaiian Airlines and US Airways the key hold outs. Conventional wisdom says US Airways will swap its order once the merger with American Airlines goes through (which is looking more and more likely, given settlement talks with the Department of Justice). American has a large order for the Boeing 787-9, making the -800 unnecessary in a combined carrier fleet plan.

There are now around 80 -800s in Airbus’ backlog, and even officials at Airbus have been ambiguous about green-lighting production of the -800, which is supposed to enter service in 2016 (after the -900 but before the -1000). We have written several posts in which we concluded the -800 would be re-sequenced to 2018, after the 2017 EIS of the -1000.

We believe there is a very good chance the A350-800 will be dropped in favor of proceeding with an A350-1100.

So what’s Airbus to do in the 250-300 seat space now occupied by the -800 and the aging A330 family?

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Backstory on the JAL deal from Bloomberg; ‘Boeing blew JAL, others’ says Aboulafia

Japan Airlines deal: Two items of note came across our desk concerning the Japan Airlines’ order from Airbus for the A350-900/1000. The first is from Bloomberg, which has an interview with Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier. Lots of speculation exists that JAL ordered the A350 because of the problems with the Boeing 787. While this may have played a role at some level, Bloomberg reports that Bregier began his efforts prior to the JAL 787 fire in January.

The other is the October newsletter from Richard Aboulafia of The Teal Group that takes Boeing to task for essentially blowing the opportunity to retain JAL’s business for the 787-10 and/or the 777X. At this writing, Aboulafia hasn’t uploaded his newsletter to his website (so keep checking). In a nutshell, Aboulafia raps Boeing management for dithering on both airplanes. Had Boeing authorized the 777X six months ago, Aboulafia writes, Boeing could have kept IAG (British Airways) and if launched in 2012, Cathay Pacific could have been kept.

Aboulafia also predicts JAL’s rival, ANA, will buy the A350. Otherwise it will be at a competitive disadvantage, he writes. The newsletter is quite harsh.

Airbus announces 68 A320s, A333 “Lite” at Chinese air show

Airbus loves air shows as platforms for announcements, and the current event in China is no exception.

Airbus announced orders for 68 A320ceos and neos and launched the A330-300 Lite program (though no orders yet). Reports suggest Airbus expects the first Lite orders from China, hence the location and announcement at the air show.

Zhejiang Long Airlines signed an MOU for 11 ceos and 9 neos. This is a start-up carrier.

Qingdao Airlines ordered five ceos and 18 neos.

BOC Aviation, the long-established leasing company owned by the Bank of China, placed an order for 12 neos and 13 ceos.

The A333 has a range of 3,000nm and will carry about 400 passengers. The weight is 200 tons and Airbus says it will burn 15% less fuel than the all-up, 6,100nm version. Aviation Week has some additional detail.

Separately, Bloomberg reports that Vietjet (Vietnam) will order up to 100 A320 family airplanes. The order could be announced today, Bloomberg says.

  • We’ve not commented on the Lufthansa Airlines order for Airbus A350-900s and Boeing 777-9s to any great extent because the deal was pretty straight-forward. But this Aviation Week article has a comment from the LH CEO saying it by-passed the 787-10 because its range (at 7,000nm) is to short. This is interesting in context of Boeing’s statements that the 787-10 will cover about 90% of the mission requirements of airlines. Just an observation.

Busy decade ahead for new, derivative airplane EIS dates

The next decade will see an extraordinary number of new and derivative airplanes entering service, beginning next year with the Boeing 787-9 and ending in 2022 with what we believe will be a replacement for the Airbus A330.

Bombardier’s CS100 is currently planned to enter service in around September next year, 12 months after its first flight on September 16, 2013, but we think EIS will slip to early 2015. Bombardier seems to be laying the groundwork for this in statements that it will reassess the EIS date in a few months.

Beginning with the 787-9, there is a steady stream of EIS dates–and a couple of end-production dates of current generation airplanes.

This chart captures the airplanes and their dates. Most dates are based on firm announcements from the OEMs, but we’ve adjusted some based on market intelligence and our own estimates.

EIS Dates

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The arrows to certain points within years are not necessarily representative of specific timelines within that year. OEMs generally are not too specific about and EIS date, preferring to say “first half” or “second half” or some derivative of ambiguity. The only specific that we’re aware of is Boeing’s revised EIS of the 737 MAX, from 4Q2017 to July 2017. Although the Ascend data base is quite specific, we’ve not attempted to be highly specific in this chart. (Have we been specific enough about all this?)

Readers will note that we have the ARJ21 arrow going to a question mark. This airplane is already seven years late, and supposedly it’s going to enter service next year, but we aren’t banking on this at all. COMAC/AVIC, producer of the ARJ21, has a dismal record of meeting target dates. Accordingly, although COMAC now says the EIS for the C919 is 2017, we’ve got this in 2018–and even this is likely generous.

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Boeing 787-9 departs on first flight

The Boeing 787-9 left this morning on its first flight at 11:02 AM PDT. We discussed the implications of this first flight on Sept. 13.

We were at the first flight departure at Paine Field, Everett (WA), for what was essentially a photo-op (this isn’t a complaint); no Boeing officials were made available to talk with. The flight departed an hour later than schedule. As we write this, the flight is still airborne, due to land at Boeing Field at 4pm 3pm (back to original schedule) PDT. A press conference with the pilots follows, though we will miss this.

While waiting, a LAN 787-8 also prepared to depart on a test flight. Compared with the 787-9, the 788 is a stubby little airplane and the 789 much sleeker. We only imagine what the even longer 787-10 will look like next to its siblings.

Here are some videos we shot. We’ll start with the take-off, followed by other videos shot while waiting for first flight.

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Odds and Ends: Hazy on the 787-10; five companies eye turboprops

Hazy on the 787-10: Steven Udvar-Hazy, CEO of Air Lease Corp and one of the most influential persons in the aviation business, weighs in on the versatility of the Boeing 787-10 in this Aviation Week article. Hazy and ALC were on the industry design team Boeing consulted during the discussions leading to the launch of the aircraft at the Paris Air Show. Originally Boeing planned a range of about 6,700 nm. Hazy constantly urged a range of 7,000 nm. This article gives an insight into Hazy’s overall thinking.

Turboprops: It’s a small market but five companies/countries are looking at whether to build the next generation of turboprops, as reported by Aviation Week.

Airbus adds to information about A330/A350 “Lite”

Airbus provided some answers to some (but not all) of our additional questions posed in our post a week ago about the A330 and A350 “Lite” versions.

We noted that Airbus had provided Direct Operating Cost (DOC) comparisons for the A330-200/300 vs the Boeing 787-8/9 but only Cash Operating Cost (COC) comparisons for the A350-900 vs the 787-10.

Airbus provided a detailed explanation, which is below.

But we also asked Airbus what are its assumptions underlying the DOC and COC conclusions. We specifically asked about the following assumptions, since they are important elements of reaching the conclusions Airbus did:

  • Number of seats on the Airbus and Boeing aircraft;
  • Fuel price per gallon;
  • The stage length used; and
  • The Capital Cost of the aircraft in lease rates.

Airbus responded with the seat assumptions for its aircraft but not for the Boeings:

  • A330-200: 246 pax;
  • A330-300: 300 pax;
  • A350-900: 315 pax

Airbus also provided the assumed lease rates for the A330 and 787-8/9 but not the A350 nor the 787-10:

  • A330-200:         800K$/mo
  • A330-300:         900k$/mo
  • 787-8:               1.1M$/mo
  • 787-9:               1.25M$/mo

The A333 and 789 lease assumptions have been used since Airbus first revealed them at Innovation Days in 2011, and we wrote about those at the time. The A332 and 788 lease rates are new information.

“We have not included figures for the A359 vs 787-10 because Boeing’s own figures are currently sketchy,” Airbus said in excluding this data.

“I do not have any more info to give you at this time, but I have been advised that we may have more visibility around October,” an Airbus spokesman wrote in an email.

Because of the “sketchy” information on the 781, the spokesman wrote that absent 781 list prices (which Boeing has yet to publish), Airbus can’t calculate a DOC with capital cost.

“The A350-900 has 4% lower trip cost (COC) than the 787-10 (comparable per seat),” the spokesman wrote. “The A350-900, in its regional variant, has been specifically optimised to offer the same payload range characteristics as the 787-10. The design weights of both aircraft are very similar. In fact, in operation, with its slightly larger number of lower-comfort seats and additional passengers and stretched fuselage the 787-10 is actually heavier than the A350-900.”

Airbus also said that the A350-900’s wing is optimized for this design while the 781 wing is the same used on the smaller and lighter 788, “resulting in compromised aerodynamics that penalise fuel burn in such a large aircraft.”

(Of course, the same principals could be applied to the smaller A350-800 and the larger A350-1000, which use the same wing at the A359.)

“The newer engines of the A350-900 burn less fuel than those of the 787 which are still struggling to deliver a fuel burn level close their specification,” the Airbus spokesman adds. He said initial test flights of the A359 show fuel burn results at spec level, which he says is lower than the 787.

“Operating at a lower rating of 75,000 lbs (vs 84,000 for basic spec) for regional applications, the engines of the A350-900 will also benefit from significant reduction in maintenance cost compared to the 787-10 engines that will be operating very close to their maximum thrust capability that was designed for the 787-9,” the spokesman wrote.