Outsourcing focus of Boeing report, but misses bigger picture; IAM vote aftermath; Boeing’s 2013

A long article (10 pages when printed) discusses the pitfalls Boeing had by outsourcing so much work on the 787. This much is not new. The point the article raises–transferring technology and the potential decline of US aerospace dominance–isn’t especially new, either; we’ve written about this in the past.

What the article, however, overlooks is that Boeing isn’t alone in doing this. To certain degrees, Airbus, Bombardier and Embraer also are guilty–as are a number of other OEMs and suppliers. CFM International, for example entered into a joint venture with the Chinese that would help them develop an modern commercial jet engine. Fortunately, CFM pulled back on this over concerns of technology transfer.

Airbus has an A320 assembly line in Tianjin, China, and Embraer had an ERJ-145 assembly line in the PRC. McDonnell Douglas had an MD-80/MD-90 line in Shanghai.

Bombardier contracts with Chinese companies to produce the Q400 and CSeries fuselages, the latter with the advanced aluminum-lithium metals.

The airframe OEMs will tell you that final assembly represents a small portion of the airplane and the risk of technology transfer is minimal. But it’s probably no coincidence that the COMAC/AVIC ARJ21 looks the the MD-80 (but sized like the DC-9-10) or that the C919 looks an awfully lot like the A320.

The article points out that Mitsubishi, which builds the wings for the Boeing 787, is now using this experience to design and build the MRJ-90. True enough, though it should be noted that having experience the composite wing issues associated with the 787, Mitsubishi abandoned plans for a composite wing for the MRJ and is proceeding with metal instead.

Suppliers are basically extorted by China: if you want to sell us your goods, you have to be prepared to transfer technology. Suppliers can’t ignore this huge market, but try to mitigate the blackmail by transferring “yesterday’s” technology or at least developing tomorrow’s technology today while transferring today’s technology to China.

It doesn’t stop with China, of course. Boeing and Airbus have Russian ties with engineers. Bombardier is planning a Q400 assembly line in Russia. Indian engineers work on Airbus and Boeing airplanes and now plan their own turbo-prop.

The days of the Big Two Duopoly are numbered. And it’s not just Boeing that is guilty of aiding and abetting the new competition.

Boeing’s Good Year in 2013

Set aside the disruptive and embarrassing ground of the 787 in January through April, Boeing had a very good year in 2013. It posted a record rate of deliveries, besting Airbus for the second year in a row. It’s order book was the best since 9/11. Here is the press release.

Airbus announces its 2013 production and delivery results on January 13.

Boeing-IAM vote: After-thoughts

We can’t go by this week without a short commentary on the Boeing-IAM vote on Friday, but we’re not going to spend a lot of time on this—we’ve analyzed this issue a number of times and there is little more to say except this:

It was a very tough vote for the union members of IAM 751. Giving up benefits won in previous hard-fought battles is always tough. But the Boeing 777X will be assembled in Washington State, and the composite wings will be built in Washington, too. Our view is that having 80% of something (benefits) is better than 100% of nothing (the 777X).

Boeing, of course, will return to the State and the union for more tax breaks and concessions when the 757 and 737 replacements are designed and a decision is needed about where to build these airplanes. Boeing is now in a position to seem more concessions from labor during a contract that’s in place to September 2024, and the union can’t strike. It’s been significantly weakened, losing leverage ion addition to benefits as a result of Friday’s contract vote.

But this enables Boeing to tell customers the threat of delivery disruptions from strikes is gone, and this will reassure them, which may or may not help sales—thus providing more work for IAM members.

Boeing faces a huge morale problem for the members who feel they’ve been had in this process. IAM members have long, long memories. Although there is no option to strike, members can “work to the rules” or find other ways to decrease productivity. Boeing has some real fence-mending to do. We’ll see whether it makes any effort to do so.

Labor isn’t content with the narrow yes vote, however. Some are calling for a third vote, arguing the January 3 election date was set to deliberately disenfranchise a large number of union members who likely would have voted No. Turnout last week was lower than the November 13 vote because many members were still on vacation from the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Odds and Ends: AirAsiaX plans A330 order; AA’s livery; vote for TWA heritage livery

AirAsiaX plans A330 order: AirAsiaX, the long-haul low cost carrier, plans a large order for the Airbus A330 this week, according to Bloomberg.

A380’s future: Bloomberg News talks about the future of the Airbus A380 with CEO Fabrice Bregier. Among his comments: no stretch anticipated until 2030.

American Airlines livery: Doug Parker, the new CEO of American Airlines, says employees will get to vote whether to keep the new American livery or restore the double AA/eagle livery to the tail. American will also add a TWA “heritage” livery airplane. US Airways has several heritage paint jobs in its fleet.

So…which TWA era would you like to see? Vote in the poll following the photos.

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Odds and Ends: XYZ–Next USAF aerial tanker specs; Analysts on CSeries ahead of earnings

KC-XYZ: The USAF hasn’t even received the first Boeing KC-46A, which was the tanker award from the KC-X competition, and it has begun drawing up specifications for the follow-on competition, the KC-Y. The KC-Y is the second tranche of replacements for the Boeing KC-135. The KC-Z will be the replacement for the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas KC-10.

Conventional wisdom suggests that one would presume Boeing will likely get the KC-Y award, since this is almost certainly to be a virtually identical specification to the KC-135/KC-Y replacement criteria. The KC-Z, on the other hand, could well be a face off between Airbus and Boeing with their KC-330/KC-777 aircraft (for Airbus) and concept (for Boeing). The Boeing 777-200LRF would be the baseline design and it is more closely the size to the KC-10 than is Airbus’ KC-330.

But it’s not as if this is immediately over the horizon. KC-Y is envisioned from 2040-45 and KC-Z in 2050-2060. So perhaps the contenders will by aircraft based on the A350, the 777-8, a Blended Wing Body or an entirely new set of airframes.

BBD CSeries: Canadian aerospace analysts believe the entry into service for the Bombardier CSeries will slip to 2015, according to Bloomberg News. Bombardier’s third quarter earnings call is October 31. There should be some guidance, we think.

Ultra Long Range Airplane market will limit 777-8 sales

A limited global market for Ultra Long Range Airplanes (ULRA) will limit sales of the Boeing 777-8.

The Boeing Board of Directors is expected to green-light the 777X program this month, with two versions of the airplane: the 350-passenger 777-8 and the 406-passenger 777-9. The 777-8 will have a range of about 9,400nm and the -9 a range about 1,000nm less.

The 777-8, an Ultra-Long Range Aircraft, is known within the industry as “Tim Clark’s airplane.” Clark is the president of Emirates Airlines and for years has been urging Airbus and Boeing to develop a plane with ultra-long range that can fly from Dubai to Los Angeles with a full payload. The absence of this ability is one reason why he has not purchased the 747-8I.

Reaction to the 777-8X in customer meetings sponsored by Boeing has been tepid. The 777-8X has been viewed as a niche airplane that will not compete effectively against the Airbus A350-1000, which nominally carriers 350 passengers but has a range of about 8,400nm.

Customer reaction, we are told by some of those in attendance at these meetings, has been that the 8X is a highly niche aircraft that will be needed on only 5% of the world’s routes. It will be too heavy and too costly for most operations, and uncompetitive with the A350-1000.

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USAF considers scrapping KC-10 in sequester

KC-10 scrapping: The US Air Force is considering scrapping the KC-10 aerial tanker fleet as a result of budget cutbacks in the sequester, The Army Times reports. This is stunning news, considering the seven year battle to recapitalize the Boeing KC-135 tanker fleet.

There are 59 KC-10s, based on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. McDonnell Douglas  merged with Boeing in 1997.

Boeing one day hopes to develop a tanker based on the 777-200LRF to replace the KC-10 and we expect Airbus Military will offer the A330 MRTT or even a tanker based on the A350, but we certainly didn’t expect any prospect of retiring the KC-10 prematurely.

New life for old airliners

New life has been created for an airliner that wasn’t considered a particularly successful airliner. The British Aerospace 146/Avro family is being converted to an aerial firefighting tanker and also an aerial refueling tanker.

The 146 and follow-on Avro upgrades weren’t particularly successful in commercial airline service, although nearly 400 were produced over 19 years. A niche aircraft, a few remain in operation today. Its four engines were an oddity for regional aircraft service and the initial engines were temperamental. The narrow fuselage made the 3×3 seating very cramped and some operators reduced seating to a more comfortable 2×3 configuration, which ballooned per-seat costs on the 100-seat model by 15% with elimination of 15 seats.

We flew in a 146 last January from Paris to Dublin, surprised to find the model still in use. While apparently still reasonably common in Europe, the airplane has disappeared from service in the US as far as we can tell.

Conversion to fire fighting use has been underway for some time, though the quantity so far is small. A blog about fire fighting discusses the 146 tanker and Aviation Week wrote a short piece about the 146 tanker and the emerging development of the McDonnell Douglas MD-87 as a tanker, which is being development by Aero Air, an affiliate of the Erickson Air Group, which is a joint venture partner in the Boeing 757P2F Precision Conversion company.

The US faces a crisis in aerial fire fighting because the tankers are old and several have crashed due to wing failures. The tanker fleet at one point was grounded for inspection because of the crashes. The 146 is viewed by some as having the advantage of being able to operate from unimproved air strips and operating at a relatively slow speed. The MD-87, sporting the same engines and wing as the larger MD-88, was considered a special performance airplane with short-field capabilities.

Bombardier has an aerial tanker that can scoop water from a lake on the fly, literally, but it costs $20m-$30m and a lack of orders caused BBD to announce it will discontinue production. There is a need for about 200 tankers worldwide, but like freighters, conversions of old airplane is preferred for cost.

Replacing the 747-400

Replacing the venerable Boeing 747-400s remaining in passenger service is a prime objective of Boeing and of Airbus. The business case for their respective 747-8Is and A380s rests in large part on this approach, though for Airbus the A380 business case also rests on passenger traffic doubling every 15 years and restricted airport slots.

Replacing the 747-400, in fact, doesn’t leave a lot of room. There are just 306 passenger models remaining in service, including VIPs and government uses, according to data provided Leeham News. There are another 23 747-400C (Combis) remaining in service.

747 In Service Chart

Data at July 2013.

Fully 42 747-400 passenger models are in storage. Many 744 “Ps” have been converted to cargo airplanes, supplementing new-build 747-400Fs (above). The 744Ps in storage and in service are obvious candidates for conversion to freighters, and there are a number of 744Fs in storage ready to return to service when the slow-moving global cargo demand recovers–which has proved to be a maddening slow process.

747 Stored Chart

Date as of July 2013

Airbus has been more successful selling its A380 to 747-400 operators than Boeing has in selling its 747-8I. Airbus has likewise been more successful at selling the aircraft to non-747-400 operators, though the customer quality in several cases was dodgy. Kingfisher Airlines has collapsed and it’s unlikely Hong Kong Airlines will take delivery of the A380, openly talking about swapping these orders for smaller aircraft.

And therein lies the rub.

747 A380 Fleets

Sources: Airbus, Boeing, Ascend at July 2013

Update: Typo on the Lufthansa remaining orders for A380s: 7, not 17.

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China’s closed airspace hasn’t changed much in 20 years

China’s military continues to so control–and close airspace–in China that delays are rampant, this AP story reports. We’re reminded on the era when we were doing business in China, going there nine times in a 4 1/2 year period from December 1988-mid 1993.

Visiting a number of airlines there, one of which was operated by the military, along with CAAC, CASC and the McDonnell Douglas Shanghai factory, we were struck by the low aircraft utilization: only six or seven hours. Western standards were 10 or more. Even then, we were told, the military control of the skies was a key factor. The low utilization rate then clearly contributed to the need to buy more airplanes to meet traffic growth than was necessary. We haven’t seen any data on today’s utilization rate, but we have to believe this nexus remains.

Flying Chinese carriers then was pretty alarming at times. A ramp worker smoked while refueling a plane, with the refueling connection spraying fuel on the ramp. Carry-on baggage was in the aisle on take off. A person was in the lav on take off. We’ve read some stories in recent years that suggest not much has changed.

Back then, getting into China had limited options. We flew to Tokyo and pretty much had to take Air China into Beijing. A direct air route would go over Korea. We couldn’t go through North Korean air space and apparently flying over South Korean to China was then forbidden, so we had to route south around the Korean peninsula, adding a great deal of time to the flight.

The McDonnell Douglas Shanghai factory was primitive even by standards of the day then, well before robotics and moving production lines. The factory was producing one MD-80 a month and the planes were essentially hand-built. This antecedent might be why the MD-80-looking ARJ21 is having such difficulty. The factory drew so much power that parts of Shanghai went brown-out or black-out during the day, an issue presumably long-since overcome in the Shanghai power grid.

The MD-80 plant was supposed to be MDC’s “in” to gain market share. While selling something like 40 MD-80s/90s (if memory serves) to China via this plant, the venture clearly was a failure and the Chinese used the operation to learn a bit about commercial aviation. Embraer had an ERJ plant in China for the same purpose, and likewise came up short of its goal while the Chinese benefited more. The Airbus plant in Tianjin seems to have been more successful, but we don’t think it’s coincidence that the COMAC C919 looks a lot like the A320.