A350 vs 787, 777

Another in a series of the Airbus Innovation Days in Hamburg, Germany, earlier this month….

Airbus predicted that the A350 will capture 50% of the medium twin-aisle market forecast of 5,900 aircraft over the next 2o years, company officials said at the press event.

(As an aside, the same forecast predicts 1,698 Large Aircraft [i.e., A380/747].)

When one considers that the Boeing competition will be the 787, the 777 and its successor, this is a pretty bold forecast.

Consider further than Airbus ceded the lower end of this market to the 787-8 by making the A350 a competitor against the 787-9 and the 777-200/300. Although Boeing in understandably coy at this early date about whether it will merely enhance the 777 or design a replacement as its answer to the A350, there really is no doubt that Boeing will eventually replace the 777 with an entirely new design. Boeing has already boldly said that a replacement airplane will be a major advance over the A350 when it comes.

Airbus took a bold gamble to place the A350 across from the 787 and the 777. Creating the 270 seat A350-800, the 314 seat A350-900 and the 350-seat A350-1000 inevitably raises the question whether Airbus compromised the optimizal design of an airframe. It is well known that shrinking or stretching an airplane too far involves trade-offs. Think A318, B737-600, B767-400 and perhaps the A321.

The A350-1000 carries 15 fewer passengers in typical configuration than the 777-300ER and while lighter and more fuel-efficient than the 777 (assuming targets are achieved), cargo payload is also somewhat less.

This puts Boeing is the position to argue its 777 may cost more to operate but has more revenue-generating capability than the A350-1000. Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s the argument used by Airbus for its A330-200/300 across from the 787-8.

The somewhat smaller -1000 seating capacity vis-a-vis the 777-300ER is also a contradiction to Airbus’ own argument of the A350 vs. the 787. Airbus believes Boeing 787 is too small at 242 seats of the -8 and 280 seats for the -9. The A350-900 has 34 more seats than the 777-200. Yet the largest A350 is smaller than the largest 777.

Airbus calls the A350 “a step ahead of the 787 and a generation ahead of the 777,” promising a 25% cost advantage over the 777 on a per-seat basis.

As we know watching the 787 development program, meeting targets is often easier said than done. The new engines will initially be over fuel burn specifications and so is the 787’s weight. The A350 has already gained weight and the new Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines are still in development.

Airbus promises a 2013 entry-into-service for the -900, 2014 for the -900 and 2015 for the -1000. EIS is also an easier target to predict than to meet. Airbus’ A380 was two years late and so is the 787. Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia, who likes the A350 business plan, nonetheless is already forecastin a two year delay in initial EIS–a figure that rankles at Airbus because it comes so far in advance of dates and milestones.

It wasn’t until within a year of roll-out that it was clear to everyone (but Boeing, apparently) that the 787 program was in serious trouble and major delays were in store. Delays, if any, in the A350 program probably won’t be clear until 2012.

Airbus believes that lessons learned from the A380 and 787 programs give officials the understanding necessary to avoid delays in the A350 production. Although Airbus plans to outsource more than ever before, Tom Williams, the production chief, and Tom Enders, CEO, told us that better choices will be made for the partners (noting cryptically that Alenia, a sore spot in the 787 program, won’t be on the A350 partner list) and that Airbus will keep much closer tabs on the partners than Boeing did on the 787 program (a point Boeing concedes was a shortcoming).

Airbus has also scheduled 15 months for flight testing but said at the press event that it hopes to complete the testing in 12 months. Boeing plans to complete 787 flight testing in 8 1/2 months.


The two year delay has allowed Boeing to get more information over to the FAA for review and approval than in previous programs. At its 787 media day in April, Boeing told us that 60% of the material required was in hand at the FAA and some 45% of this had already been reviewed and approved.

Boeing has also said that it will conduct flight testing 24/7 with six 787s. This actually is a bit misleading; the planes will fly only about eight hours a day and then undergo 16 hours of daily maintenance, test analysis and preparation for the next flights as well as deal with the problems and issues that arise during previous flights.

Compared with the 777 program, the most recent previous new airplane program at Boeing, ground testing is planned for less than half the time on the 787  and what is called “Planned Layup” is also about half than scheduled for the 777. Planned Layup is the amount of time required to prep the airplane for the next round of flight tests.

Advances in technology from the early 1990s, when the 777 was in testing, account for much of the time savings.

So-called “Discovery Layups,” that is, things that emerge during flights or ground testing, remains about the same as with the 777 schedule, as does the flight testing itself.

There is a fundamental difference between the A350 and the 787 in the basic design: the former’s panel and the latter’s barrel construction. There is a lot more, of course, but this column doesn’t delve into the minute technical detail such as covered by Flight International or Aviation Week, to name just two magazines.

One thing is for sure: Boeing’s big bet on the 787 with its original EIS of 2008 would have put Boeing well ahead of Airbus–by five years–with a markedly new and different airplane had this been achieved. Boeing’s lead time is reduced to three years with a plane that initially falls short of promises.

If Airbus can avoid the same pitfalls, three years isn’t an insurmountable lead in a life cycle of 25 years or more for an aircraft.

6 Comments on “A350 vs 787, 777

  1. “Think A318, B737-600, B767-400”

    What about 787-9/-10 and possible -11? Their baseline model is -8, if I am correct, stretching it twice will not win them many orders against the the A359. Airbus positioned themselves right between the 787 and the 77W. With the future 77E replacement wave, Airbus could be picking up some useful orders. With the -1000, I think Airbus will hope to persuade the airlines to downsize if the promised operating saving are anything in the order of 25%.

    The interesting thing for me is what is Airbus going to do with the A330. Did they let slip any of their plans?

    “It’s the argument used by Airbus for its A330-200/300 across from the 787-8.”

    But then the range of the A332 is nothing like the 787. Airbus will have a hard time competing, hence the question above.

    “Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia … is already forecasting a two year delay”

    He had be forecasting it since last year, pretty much 5 years before EIS. From everything I had seen and heard, the -900 is on target as of now.

    “Delays, if any, in the A350 program probably won’t be clear until 2012.”

    This is what Dick should have said instead.

  2. I think, strictly speaking, that Airbus forecast of 5900 is for small as well as medium twin aisles:


    Maybe the 50% figure only applies to the intermediate category, which Airbus defines as 350 – 400 seats, representing 1800 aircraft. This becomes a fight between the A350-1000 and the 777-300ER (or its successor). Sales in the last couple of years have been honours even between these two models,

  3. Boeing’s strategy is to build two new planes to cover the 220-380 seat market, one, the 787, for the lower end, and the other, improved 777-200-300ERs first followed by a new replacement, for the higher end. The question is, where is the seating dividing line between the two?

    Airbus’ refusal to finally define the performance of the the 350-9 and -1000 makes it tough for Boeing to answer this question. Airbus likely intends this result so that wherever Boeing puts the seating dividing line, it will be too late to produce enough planes to deprive the -900 and -1000 of an initial, substantial foothold in the market, particularly in the upper end where Airbus has no product at the moment.

    Boeing’s complete botch of the 787 may play nicely into Airbus’ hands. This may be the case because the extra expenses Boeing are paying to fix the 787 may deprive them of the resources they thought they would have after May, 2008, (the original first delivery date for the 787) to field the improved 777s and then by the early 2020s a complete new replacement. Does anyone have any info as to whether this is happening?

    In any case, no one believes anything Boeing says anymore, including their recent claim that they could deliver a 777 replacement within four years of go-ahead.

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