Boeing CEO said there will be no more “moonshots” at Boeing when it comes to future airplane development. Airbus says it will focus on derivatives rather than new airplanes.
After the program debacles of the Airbus A400M and A380 (plus the development cost of the A350) and Boeing 747-8 and 787, we can appreciate the sentiment. However, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney’s statement that doing a new airplane every 25 years is, essentially, bad policy, is disheartening.
Boeing used to be the shining example in the US of innovative technology: The B-17, B-29, B-47, B-52, 707, the versatile 727, the 747, the ETOPS 767, the incredibly reliable 777 and now the 787 (even as troubled as it has been). The 737, best-selling airplane that it is, was not a ground-breaking technology and neither was the 757. But each became solid stable mates in the 7 Series line up.
Airbus also offered ground-breaking technology and concepts. Fly-by-wire. Common cockpits across the family line. Re-engining the A320 family (forcing a reluctant Boeing to do the same with the 737). A technologically impressive A380, even if it’s hardly been the sales success Airbus hoped for.
Innovation and the willingness to taking industrial-leading chances make a company great.
In contrast, McDonnell Douglas is a prime example of derivative mentality. As any aviation geek knows, Douglas Aircraft Co. was an industrial leader. The DC-1, DC-2 and DC-3. The DC-4E begot the DC-4, which was the foundation of the DC-6/7. The DC-8, in the end an also-ran to the 707, was nonetheless a good airplane that became better with the Super DC-8. The DC-9 was a winner. And there it stopped. The MD-80/90 were essentially derivatives of the DC-9. The DC-10 wasn’t ground-breaking; it used current technology on a larger scale. The MD-11 was a derivative of the DC-10.
MDC’s reluctance to invest in new airplanes led to its exit from commercial aviation (it was down to a 7% share in 1997) and, ultimately, from business as an independent company.
McNerney’s suggestion that a replacement for the 757 could be a derivative of the 737 or the 787 is troubling. The 737-9 is already a compromised airplane that can’t be stretched again without major changes. Higher landing gear, a new wing, bigger engines, not to mention a fuselage cross section dating to the 1950s. Doing all this amounts to a new airplane, similar to that of the 727-757 scenario. Old timers will remember the 757 started out as a derivative of the 727 and evolved into a new design, albeit with a similar fuselage.
The 737 needs its own replacement by the next decade. Thus, the next new airplane at Boeing needs to cover the 757 and 737 families, something starting at about 170 seats, going to 220-250 and a range of 3000-4200nm. A 737-based airplane or a down-sized 787 won’t do this. (And McNerney’s prospect of a 787 shrink is hardly the answer; shrinks just don’t do well, as Airbus has seen with the A350-800.) A clean-sheet design is needed that, in Boeing’s term, harvests technology and doesn’t go for ground-breaking and challenging technologies. This is largely what the 757 was. Boeing issue at the time was the simultaneous development of the 757 and 767.
Airbus is facing similar issues. Understandably and equally burned by its own costly program difficulties, like Boeing, officials want to make money rather than spend money. Hence the new focus on derivatives. The A320neo. The prospect of an A330neo and of an A380neo. This new attention for derivatives, with the A320neo already accomplished, lends additional weight toward going forward with the A330neo. The A380neo is too distant, and there is a pressing need to do something with the A330. This also lends some weight to the prospect of developing an A350-1100.
McNerney’s approach raises concerns. Fortunately, he is nearing retirement, probably in 2016–Boeing’s 100th Anniversary. Let’s hope his successor doesn’t follow the McNerney-McDonnell Douglas philosophy.