First of two parts.
Earlier this year, Airbus officials said they will concentrate on improving existing airplanes once the A350 enters service.
Boeing followed by saying it would not take any “moonshots” and develop new airplanes, at least for some indeterminate time.
The sentiment on the part of both companies is understandable if not disappointing for aviation purists who want to see new and innovative airplane models rather than made-over sub-types.
This is one of those cases where both schools of thought are right. (Text continues below photo.)
New airplanes are, to state the obvious, very expensive to develop and in this increasingly technological age and demand for “smarter” airplanes that are more fuel efficient and which try to improve passenger experience while cramming as many revenue-paying passengers into the airplane as possible, becoming more and more challenging. Where it once was possible to bring an airplane to market within four years of launch, today airframers routinely look at seven years and even eight. Even derivative airplanes are now taking six or seven years to enter service from launch.
The most recent all-new new airplane programs that suffered delays are the Boeing 787, the Airbus A350, A380, the Bombardier CSeries, the Mitsubishi MRJ, the AVIC (now COMAC) ARJ-21, the COMAC C919, Sukhoi SSJ and the Irkut MC-21.
In other words, every single one. Some are running 18 months late (the A350), two years (the CSeries and MRJ and some are much longer (787, SSJ, ARJ21 and C919). Reasons vary, from inexperience (AVIC, COMAC and Mitsubishi) to industrial issues (787), design issues (ARJ-21, 787) and technical issues (pretty much all in one way or another).
Programs have price tags in the billions before anything goes wrong. Boeing’s 787 probably has set a record for program cost overruns in the civilian sector, with estimates hitting $22bn all-in–Boeing won’t put a price tag on it publicly. So it’s only natural that with these numbers and technical challenges at stake that the OEMs want to “harvest” the technology, as Boeing puts it, not only in derivatives but across family siblings.
Boeing’s 787 was a program debacle but this didn’t stop the company from applying design features and technologies rather quickly across the siblings. The 787’s 21st Century look interior inspire the interiors for the 747-8 and 737. Elements will clearly be included in the forthcoming 777X. The 787’s GEnx engines were applied to the 747-8 and so were elements of the 787 wing design, which were also applied to the 777X. The 787-8/9 begot the 787-10.
At Airbus, the company was sorely hurt by the development costs and delays of the A380 and military A400M. The cash squeeze, in our view, forced Airbus into at first a band-aid response to the 787 and expensive redesigns of the A350 until it settled on the three-member family of the XWB, the -800/900/1000. The -800 was the response to the 787-9; the -900 and -1000 took on the 777-200 and 300ER. The 787-8 went unchallenged, technologically speaking, leaving this battle to the A330, which for clarity we will call the A330 Classic.
Any fair assessment concludes that Airbus fumbled the ball, though it was a fumble induced by the A380 and A400M issues. Trying to cover two competitors, the 787 and the 777, with one family simply wasn’t a strategy that many thought would work. While Airbus was making the argument that the 787 carried too few passengers in an aviation world that was increasing in size, thus justifying the larger A350-800, its A350-1000 was smaller that the 777-300ER it was designed to compete with. This would come back to haunt Airbus in the coming years.
As time passed, it became clear the -800 wasn’t the right solution. Aircraft economics just weren’t good enough. The airplane cost about as much to operate as the larger -900 but it carried fewer passengers. Airlines were beginning to upgauge to the -900 and, in a few cases, the -1000, in part because Airbus had limited resources and were concentrating them on the -900 and -1000. It was clear the -800 had limited appeal and would be better off dropped. But what to do to cover the 787-8 and 787-9 markets? We’ll talk about this in Part 2.
The -1000 had its own issues. the original intent was to have full commonality between the family members, including the all-important (and very expensive) engines. But the performance was proving to fall short as analysis progressed. Airbus and engine maker Rolls-Royce soon tweaked the airplane, but in doing so angered customers because some of the critical engine commonality was lost. Emirates Airlines years later canceled its order for the A350 because it wasn’t the airplane it contracted for, said president Tim Clark.
After Boeing launched the 777-9, which carries an advertised 407 passengers to the -1000’s advertised 369, Airbus is faced with having too-small an airplane against the 777. The company is working to close the gap.
Airbus and Boeing weren’t the only OEMs to encounter problems with new airplane programs. Mitsubishi is two years late with the MRJ regional jet. Bombardier is 18-24 months late with the CSeries. China’s AVIC and COMAC, building their first jet transports that aren’t mere “Chinese copies” of other Western jetliners, are finding great difficulty and endless challenges. Russia’s Sukhoi and Irkut, integrating Western technology into local designs, are running into challenges as well.
Embraer, on the other hand, elected to take a bye on going with a new airplane design to succeed its popular E-Jet, electing instead to proceed with derivatives. It’s too early to know whether EMB is going to have challenges, but other OEMS found that derivatives can be anything but easy.
Part 2 tomorrow discusses this.