Aviation Week has an interesting story asking whether airframers truly listen to customers when designing airplanes.
The question is not an idle one. Airbus and Boeing constantly say they do, but Airbus is getting loads of flak from Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines (both of whom like to negotiate in the press) over the revamped A350-1000 announced at the Paris Air Show. Qatar says the changes came as a surprise (we were told otherwise at the time by Airbus).
Airbus CEO Tom Enders since said Airbus won’t keep changing the A350’s design in response to customer comments. One can appreciate how he might be tired of this. The A350 went through five or six iterations in response to customer comments, a somewhat awkward display.
Emirates, meanwhile, has been pressing Boeing for years to squeeze just a little bit more out of the 747-8 to make it capable of non-stop Dubai-LAX service. So far, Boeing hasn’t done so. More recently, Emirates is pressing Boeing to revise the 777 to do the same route. Boeing is still trying to decide what it wants in the 777 enhancement.
Airbus and Boeing officials have both said time and again that they design airplanes for 90%-95% of the missions and not that last 5%-10%. Most recently, Boeing’s John Hamilton, chief engineer on the 737, make it clear the 737-9 MAX won’t be redesigned to get that last 5% to make it a true 757 replacement for 4,000nm range. Airbus told us the same thing for its A321neo. The 757 was a unique airplane in many respects, but it also sold only 1,000 (nothing to be embarrassed by under any circumstance but it pales in comparison to the 737 and A320 families). Customer concentration was heavily weighted toward the US. Winglets gave the airplane new utility, long after production ceased.
The airframers each have gone through periods where customers complain they don’t listen–that Airbus or Boeing tells the customers what they have to offer. We think this is endemic to any buyer-seller relationship. But in the end, if the airframers don’t offer what the customers want, the orders go elsewhere. Boeing’s MAX is a good example. Boeing clearly preferred going with a New Small Airplane. While it dithered, Airbus launched the neo (which Boeing ridiculed). When Airbus cleaned up in orders and it became clear American Airlines was going to be among them, Boeing launched the MAX–and its commitment book is now impressive. NSA preference or not, Boeing ultimately listened to the demand for re-engined airplanes. Just as Airbus’ A350 saga was messy, so was Boeing’s on MAX. But there you go.