A320 v 737

We’re back from two days at Airbus for its Innovation Days presentations, and the timing couldn’t have worked out better. Less than two weeks before we attended Boeing’s 737 enhancements day, followed by the 787 update day.

Both Airbus and Boeing events were highly informative. The 737 day announced things that we wrote about in December for Aviation and the Environment: an entirely new interior, based on 787 features; making standard Required Navigation Procedures (RNP) in the cockpit—80% of customers were already adding this as an option—and aerodynamic improvements that are intended to decrease drag and fuel consumption by 1%. Also announced was the next step in engine tweaks by CFM for the CFM 56-7B. This is project to provide for a 1% improvement in fuel burn.

The interior enhancement rolls out next year; the aerodynamic and engine improvements are integrated into production in 2011.

The 737 day also included tours in Boeing’s Customer Experience Center to see the latest in 747-8I and 787 interiors.

The 787 day was a total program update in advance of the airplane finally flying in June and the start of the test program, two years late, but marking important milestones for the company nonetheless.

Airbus held what used to be called its Technical Days in Hamburg, Germany, for the first time, giving some 90 journalists a comprehensive look at these company facilities. These include the A320 families and A380; Toulouse, which we saw during a 2006 visit to Airbus, includes the entire Airbus commercial line, recently breaking ground for the A350.

We’ve already filed two reports on this website from the Hamburg days. We’ll be filing several more in the coming days. We’ll start with this one on the A320.

We previously reported on enhancements to the A320 family, also in that December issue of Aviation and the Environment. These included aerodynamic improvements, a new interior, RNP and engine upgrades for the International Aero Engine V2500 and the CFM 56-5 series that power this airplane. The aerodynamic and engine improvements are projected to improve fuel burn about 2%. Also being studied: adding winglets, which could produce 3%-4% improvements, providing new structures required don’t offset the gains.

Some of the A320 enhancements have already been introduced. The interior went into production in 2007; the engine tech insertions have taken place but the CFM insertion was recent enough that its results are on the trailing edge of being validated to its advertised goal. Winglet analysis should be completed in four to six weeks, in time for the Paris Air Show, where news is otherwise expected to be scarce.

Airbus believes the improvements will keep the A319 comfortably ahead of Boeing’s 737-700 in fuel efficiencies and on a par with the 737-800 on trip costs. (Boeing believes it holds comfortable advantages in both of its airplanes.)

Both manufacturers disdain reengining their aircraft. Boeing said it won’t do so unless Airbus does and Airbus told us it does not believe the only prospect for an early reengining, Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbo Fan (GTF), is likely to be ready by 2014 when PW says it could be—a date early enough to make any difference before an entirely new airplane design with engines that can match customer desires for 20% fuel efficiencies are available around the turn of the next decade.

PW is placing its bet on the GTF, with an advertised 12%-15% fuel burn improvement and the prospect for more. CFM is developing the LEAP-X (about 16% better than today’s engines) and Open Rotor (about 26% better). Rolls-Royce is pondering three engine types, including a conventional design, an open rotor and even a turbo-prop, all within the 16%-26% range.

Coupled with efforts for improving the airframe by 10% and navigation/air traffic management by 10%, Airbus says airlines want a 40% improvement in the next new airplane, and reengining just can’t get you there with simply hanging a new engine on today’s airframes.

What’s left in the meantime? Tweaking existing designs, and that’s what Airbus and Boeing are doing with the A320/737 families.

We’re reminded of the intense rivalry between Douglas Aircraft Company and Lockheed when the DC-propeller series was up against the Constellations. Each manufacturer tweaked and improved their models: The DC-4, in several minor versions, followed by the DC-6, DC-6A/B/C (yes, there was a C), the DC-7, DC-7B and DC-7C, vs. Lockheed’s L-049, 749, 1049/1049C/G/H and 1649 series.

Into the jet age, Douglas and Boeing squared off. Boeing led with the 707-120, followed by the 707-020 (aka 720) and 707-320 (with all three series gaining the “B” designation when equipped with fan jets). Douglas had the DC-8-10/11/12, 30/40/50 and real winners with the Series 60 (61/62/63).

This kind of product update continued with the DC-9 vs 737 and so on, right through to today with Airbus and Boeing trying to one-up each other across every model.

So who is the winner in the latest round? An objective assessment shows a split decision.

On engine improvements: This see-saws back and forth. IAE and CFM each offered technical improvements (Select One for IAE, Tech Insertion for CFM) covering both Airbus and Boeing airplanes. The latest CFM 56 Evolution gives Boeing an advantage, even if EIS isn’t until 2011. The Evolution offered on the CFM-056-7B, which is not offered on the Airbus CFM 56-5 Series, puts Airbus behind. Airbus is talking to CFM about what Evolutions can be offered on the -5. Winner here: Boeing.

On new interiors: Airbus introduced a new interior for the A320 family in 2007, with more overhead luggage space and an inch more headroom for some passengers; a new, wider look along the ceiling; and other features. Boeing’s new 737 interior follows next year with the most striking difference being the adoption of 787-style overhead bins that are curved and provide a lot more headroom and baggage space. Lighting is softer and the ceiling gives a very wide look. The downside to the new 737 interior is that the handrails for the passengers are gone. These are very useful while standing or heading to the loo when some turbulence occurs. Without these handrails (still present on the A320 interior), people have to use the seat backs for support, such as these offer, much to the annoyance of those seated. We really like the handrails, so new looks notwithstanding, we mark the new 737 interior down a bit. But we also notice that not many people actually use the handrails. We don’t know if Airbus or Boeing ever surveyed passengers on this point or what the results are if they did. Setting aside our own personal use of the handrails, we think Boeing’s new interior is a home run. The Wow factor inspired by the 787 features are cooler than the A320’s functionality. Winner: Boeing.

On aerodynamic improvements: each company is getting only one percent, but Airbus was there first. Winner: Airbus.

On winglets: Airbus was there first with wingtip fences and Boeing came kicking and screaming into the winglets. Aviation Partners really struggled to convince Boeing that winglets on the 737 made sense. Once this happened, Boeing adopted the idea with a vengeance, supporting retrofitting 757s and 767s with them. On the other hand, Airbus was smug in its superiority of the wingtip fences and only within the last year or two tested winglets on the A320s. Even if the current assessment proves feasible, Airbus is late to the game. Winner: Boeing.

On RNP: Maybe it’s because of our proximity to Boeing on this one, but we’ve heard more about RNP and Boeing than we have about RNP and Airbus. Boeing announced at its 737 day that RNP will be standard by 2011 if not before; Airbus announced the creation of an RNP subsidiary at its Innovation Days, a unit called Quovadis that goes beyond just the airplane and also includes professional services to airports, design, procedures, testing and flight operations. If Boeing offers this, we haven’t heard about it. Winner: Airbus, for an all-inclusive approach.

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