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Airbus misses a paradigm shift

The Farnborough Air Show is on near London this week. In the commercial jet market, things have changed dramatically since the Paris Air show last year. A year ago Airbus had their first flying displays of their very large new A380 airliner, and for the fifth year in a row Airbus received more orders for airliners than did Boeing. Through a combination of more modern aircraft, more modern production lines and (perhaps) state subsidies, Airbus has come from a distant position in the market to market leadership.

However, this year Airbus fallen to a distant second in the market, having received only 117 orders this year to Boeing’s 480. The A380 is behind schedule, the first airlines to receive it will be getting it six months late, and Airbus has scarcely received an order for it in the last couple of years. (Total orders are presently for 159). Boeong has received orders for 400 of its new mid-market 787 aircraft (and orders for Airbus’ A330 and smaller A340 variants have dried up completely) and is also significantly ahead of Airbus in the upper mid-market segment containing Airbus’ A340-600 aircraft and Boeing’s 777-300. Airbus’ British shareholder BAe Systems would like to sell its minority stake in Airbus, and therefore recently commissioned N. M. Rothschild to provide a valuation of the stake. The resulting valuation (€2.75bn) was dramatically less than the (€4bn) BAe Systems had anticipated.

The short term reasons for this turnaround are fairly obvious. The dollar has weakened significantly compared to the euro. While Airbus has hedged its currency exposure on existing orders and these will therefore still be profitable, it lacks this advantage going forward on new orders. While Boeing’s production methods were outdated five years ago, its logistical systems have been dramatically improved since, and in terms of production it once again can compete. The A380 delay is certainly a short term factor, but most aircraft programs feature a delay like this at some point.

But these are only the short term reasons. There are more long term reasons, but the financial press seems to have failed to put the whole story together. There have been various observations that Airbus will have essentially have no products in the mid market segment opposite the 787 unless they launch a new product fast. There have also been one or two observations that Boeing and Airbus are going to have to launch new products to replace their aging smaller aircraft shortly, but no real explanation as to why. (Boeing’s 737 was first launched in the mid 1960s, whereas the Airbus A320 was mid 1980s. If an updated 1960s aircraft has been able to compete with a 1980s aircraft up until now, why do both companies now have to suddenly start from scratch?) To actually explain what is really going on, I am going to go off on an apparent tangent.

In 1931 the Empire State Building was built in New York. It has a roof height of 381 metres (and a spire of 449m). The tallest building in the world today is Taipei 101 in Taiwan, which has a roof height of 449 metres (and a spire of 508m), only about 18% taller. On the other hand, the Empire State Building was 58% taller than the world’s tallest building in 1930 (the Woolworth Building, also in New York). However, under construction at the moment are the International Commerce Center in Hong Kong (484m), the Shanghai World Finance Center (roof 492m), the Busan Lotte Tower (494m) in Korea, and much more mindbogglingly Burj Dubai in Dubai, which will have a spire of 808m, Although the builders haven’t yet publically announced what the roof height will be, it will be at least 50% higher than the present highest building. The pattern is that in the 1930s a limit was reached as to the maximum height that could be easily built, and that this limit stayed in place until recently. However, the limit is now no longer in place, and records are being shattered in the same way they were shattered in the 1930s.

In 1931, the George Washington Bridge was built, crossing the Hudson River between upper Manhattan and Fort Lee, New Jersey. This bridge had the longest span in the world (1067m), and this was an amazing 89% longer than the previous record holder (the Ambassador Bridge, connecting Detroit MI with Windsor ON). As recently as 1998, the longest bridge in the world was the Humber Bridge in England, with a span of 1410, 32% longer than the Washington, and only 10% longer than the Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937.

However, in 1998 two bridges have been opened that are substantially longer than the Humber Bridge, the Great Belt (East) Bridge in Denmark at 1624 metres, and the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge near Kobe in Japan at 1991 metres. After the length of the longest bridge increased by only 10% in 60 years, it then jumped by 41%. In addition, construction is scheduled to commence in 2006 on the Messina bridge connecting mainland Italy with Sicily, which would have a main span of a rather mindboggling 3300m, a further 60% longer than the Akashi-Kaikyo, and 134% longer than the Humber. (It is still possible that the bridge might not be built, but if it is cancelled it will be due to political difficulties and fears that the project will turn into a massive funds transfer from the Italian state (and the rich cities of the north) to the Sicilian mafia (and the poor south). There are no serious issues with respect to technical feasibility and engineering cost).

The general pattern is exactly the same one for tall buldings. Dramatic increases in the size of what could be built came in the 50 years to the 1930s, there were virtually no increases between the mid 1930s and the mid 1990s, and there have been sudden and dramatic increases since.

What happened to cause this kind of progress to stop in the mid 1930s is no secret. Steelmaking became a large scale industrial process in the second half of the nineteenth century, and by the first couple of decades of the twentieth steel was a mature product and was about as strong as it could be. It took a couple of decades for this to filter all the way through engineering design, but by the mid 1930s this process was essentially complete. The tallest buildings and longest bridges that could cost-effectively be built with steel were being built. From about 1980, the so called “materials revolution” got going in a big way. This ultimately led to materials much stronger than steel, but possibly even more importantly led to materials with equivalent strength that were much lighter than concrete. This meant that bridges and towers could simultaneously be lighter (meaning that the structural elements of the buildings did not need to be as strong) and stronger (meaning that the stuctural elements could be just as strong, but made from lighter and cheaper material). This led to a virtuous circle in which large structures could suddenly be made both more cheaply and if necessary much larger. This initially worked its way into smaller structures, which gained a new “spider web” quality about them compared to the rather lumbering look of older structures. The “cable stayed” design suddenly became optimal for medium sized bridges. (For smaller bridges, the cost of the physical structure suddenly became a minor element in the total cost of building a bridge. Suddenly it was no longer necessary to choose the cheapest design from a material and structural point of view, meaning there was suddenly huge scope for creativity in the design of smaller bridges. Suddenly, the construction of smaller bridges became about architecture rather than engineering. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava became the first significant architect in history to be principally concerned with bridges). The materials revolution slowly worked its way to larger bridges and larger buildings. The physical appearance of the largest structures was not dramatically different to that of the previous generation.

They were just a lot bigger.

Now, back to aircraft. It would be easy to see something similar (although on a different time frame) that something similar has happened here. The largest passenger airline in service – the Boeing 747 – first flew 36 years ago. Now, however, a substantially bigger aircraft (the A380) has come along. Perhaps the same technological revolution has come along for aircraft.

Actually no. The above is dead wrong.

Actually yes. The revolution is here, just not with the A380.

For one thing, the A380 is not really that much bigger than previous designs. The occasionally quoted figures of an aircraft that can seat up to 853 people are actually references to what the A380 would seat in an all economy configuration, and few if any airlines will ever fit an aircraft out like that. (The largest ever seating configuration on a Boeing 747 was 594 seats on some all economy ANA Japanese domestic services, but more typical three class configurations are around 400 seats). The A380 will seat more people largely due to having a top deck running the entire length of the aircraft, but its other dimensions are fairly similar to the 747. The Soviet Union actually managed to build a military jet transport larger than the A380 in 1988, so there is nothing terribly revolutionary about building a jet transport that big. (An interesting diagram comparing these various aircraft is here

In 1970, the Boeing 747 went into service with Pan American Airways. The aircraft could seat more than twice as many passengers as the largest passenger aircraft built prior to it. Boeing and Pan-Am promoted it as heralding a new age of travel. These huge aircraft would be worlds of their own, containing piano bars, comfortable lounges, and all kinds of facilities out of a more civilised age. Travel would be revolutionised. Blah blah blah. The general press lapped this stuff up. High prestige airlines all ordered a few. (Pan Am ordered a lot, as the aircraft had been built in the first place almost as a bet between Boeing CEO Bill Allen and Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe).

Then however, the first oil crisis hit in 1974. Airlines were financially squeezed. Orders dried up. (Boeing sold very few 747s between the early 1970s and the mid 1980s). Those airlines that had 747s set about squeezing the maximum amount of profitability out of every aircraft. Rather than being full of piano bars and lounges, the 747 was about shoving people in like sardines. Boeing had spent so much money on developing the new aircraft that it almost drove the company bankrupt.

In truth, Boeing made a mistake in building the 747 in the late 1960s. The market for an aircraft that size was not genuinely there until about 1985. Another market segment – wide body jets seating between 250 and 350 people – would ultimately be much more important. If Boeing had built an aircraft in this segment in the late sixties it probably wouldn’t have had such difficulties in the mid 1970s. As it was, the focus on larger aircraft delayed Boeing’s entry into this important segment until the Boeing 767 was introduced in 1979. Boeing’s US competitors Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas produced smaller wide-bodies than the 747 (the L-1011 Tristar and the DC-10), but both aircraft were for various reasons rather troubled, and both in retrospect were also too big.

The company that did invent the future was a state subsidised European consortium, Airbus, which in 1972 flew its first aircraft, a twin engined wide bodied jet called the A300, that seated 270 people or so. Airbus had great difficulty selling these at first, due to the mid seventies oil crisis, and due to the fact that it was a new company that nobody had ever heard of. It was able to stay in the market for a few years due to the fact that it had European taxpayer pockets to draw on. It leased some aircraft to a few airlines (most notably Eastern Airlines of the US) on ludicrously generous terms. However, ultimately the airlines operating the A300 figured out that the A300 was a very fine aircraft, and that it filled a market segment that was both vital and which had been ignored by the US manufacturers. Boeing later entered the same market segment with the 767, but the A300 ultimately sold well, and (again with some state help) Airbus followed up by building a smaller narrow body aircraft, the A320 (and later variants the A321, A319, and A318) to compete with Boeing’s 737.

By the late 1980s, Airbus and Boeing were the only two significant players in the passenger jet market. The market had segmented into three parts: (1) Narrow bodied aircraft used for domestic and intra-continental travel, in which Boeing’s 737 competed with Airbus’ A320; (2) Smaller wide bodied aircraft used for long intra-continental (eg NY-LA) and shorter inter-continental travel (eg London-NY or Brisbane-Singapore), in which Airbus’ A300 and smaller variants of the A330 competed with Boeing’s 767; (3) Long haul intercontinental, in which initially Boeing’s 747 was the only option. (Yes, there were and are plenty of exceptions to these divisions, most dramatically in Japan. I am simplifying).

The fact that Boeing’s 747 was in the mid to late 1980s the only aircraft in segment (3) gave Boeing a major marketing advantage, which was that it could sign a contract with an airline to provide multiple types of aircraft including the 747, make razor thin margins on the smaller aircraft and fat profits on the 747. It would gain economies of scale on the large numbers sold and keep its total market share.

Airbus at this point became fixated on the fact that Boeing had this advantage of a very large, long range aircraft, and decided that it needed a larger and bigger aircraft. What ultimately became the A380 had a very long gestation, and Airbus took plans for various versions to a lot of airlines over the years. Eventually, around the turn of the century Airbus got enough big airlines to commit to buy it if it was built that the aircraft went into production. Boeing was not willing to respond by building an aircraft the same size, so Airbus is now in a position where it has the largest segment of the market to itself. Airbus was even able to sell a few smaller aircraft to airlines that would not have bought them if they had not being buying A380s as well. (For instance, Qantas bought A330s that it certainly would not have bought otherwise)

However, the market had changed by then. Segment (3) was dominated by the 747 in the 1980s, but that was probably more because of its range than its size: for a few years it was the only aircraft that could manage the really long-stop routes like Sydney – Los Angeles or Hong Kong – London. In the mid to late 1990s, other slightly smaller aircraft were produced that could fly the same distance or further – the larger and longer range variants of Airbus’ A340 and Boeing’ own 777. By the turn of the century, these were selling in larger numbers than the 747. 747 sales in fact had just about dried up. The fact that Airbus had a strong presence in segment (3) despite not having the largest aircraft was a big factor in it taking market leadership from Boeing.

But Airbus launched the A380 anyway. They got airlines to order about 150 of them. Things looked okay. But they weren’t really. Airlines that did want to buy the largest and latest for prestige reasons bought a few, but this market dried up. Deals like Qantas’ A330/A380 weren’t in fact the sort of good multi-type deal Boeing had managed previously but were more a case of Airbus offering the A330 utterly ludicrously cheaply in order that the airline would buy the A380 at all. In truth there are very few routes in which having an aircraft like the A380 is really an advantage. Airlines that fly into airports that are extremely capacity constrained in terms of landing slots (eg Heathrow, Narita) will likely find it useful, but there are perhaps half a dozen such airports (if that) in the world and maybe a dozen routes between these airports on which such aircraft might be useful. It is difficult to see much of a market for the A380 (over the next decade at least) beyond those aircraft already sold. Further than a decade out, the A380 it going to look horribly outdated, as I shall explain.

On the other hand, there is a huge market for mid-sized aircraft – essentially category (2) and the smaller part of category (3). Rather than having a fight in the large aircraft market, Boeing instead waited, attempted to sell something called the “sonic cruiser” to airlines which didn’t provide greater efficiency than existing aircraft but which airlines didn’t want – there remains speculation as to whether this was a serious project or a ruse to disguise what Boeing was actually working on, and then eventually announced a new mid sized aircraft – aimed at segment (2) and the smaller end of segment (3) – that was initially had the code name 7E7 and was ultimately renamed the 787. (Boeing would never really explain what the “E” was supposed to stand for, although “efficiency” was a popular guess. Boeing ultimately claimed it stood for “Eight”). This was the revolutionary aircraft, with its major structures being made from composite materials consisting largely of a mixture of titanium carbon, and various complex polymers. Composite materials had been working their way into less significant parts of aircraft for a decade or two, but the 787 is the first aircraft with the fuselage and the wing made entirely from these new materials. It appears that the lighter structures can lead to efficiency gains of about 10%. (Boeing has quoted “25% more efficient” in its publicity, but the rest of the efficiency gains come from more efficient engines (which are easy enough to retrofit onto existing aircraft) and better aerodynamics (harder, but building a new wing is much easier than building a new aircraft from scratch). It is the advantage due to the stronger and lighter materials that give Boeing its edge. It also seems that building from these materials is actually cheaper, so the sticker price on the 787 has been seen as quite reasonable.

Having designed a much more fuel efficient aircraft, Boeing has then encountered perfect market conditions to sell it . The global economy remains quite strong, but oil prices have gone through the roof and the US dollar has fallen. AIrlines care more about fuel efficiency, and the aircraft is cheap in Euro terms. Boeing has thus sold vast numbers of aircraft, and sales seem to be accelerating if anything.

Airbus has had to respond. Initially, they stated that they would produce a new aircraft called the A350. This was to be an enlarged version of Airbus’ existing A330, with an all new wing. The new wing was to have been made of composite materials, but this was a classic “Take an old aircraft and update it” strategy of the kind that has worked well from the 1960s but which now just tends to suggest that Airbus hadn’t got the paradigm shift, or had got it but couldn’t afford to respond. Reaction to the A350 proposal was tepid, and Airbus has been apparently regrouping for the last few months. A few weeks ago French President mentioned something called the “A370” in a speech. As nobody else had heard of an A370, this was initially taken as a sign that the man was possibly going senile in addition to being incompetent and corrupt, but it seems that he had been briefed on what Airbus was doing. Airbus had realised that they did need a new, all composite design, and they were back at the drawing board. This morning, Airbus publicly discussed the project, although they were somewhat vague about the details, and it is apparently now back to being the A350 (the “A350 XWB”, more specifically). However, they are yet to formally launch the product (they are talking about doing so “in 100 days”) and the earliest the aircraft will be in service is 2012.

In recent times, Boeing has been admitting in private to having something called Project Yellowstone, aimed at replacing all of its product line with new aircraft built from composite materials. This project involves three new models of aircraft, of the which the 787 is the first, and is in the middle in terms of size. (My hunch is that the question of whether tbe 787 came out of Project Yellowstone or that Project Yellowstone came out of the 787 depends on who is telling the story, but I don’t know the internals of Boeing politics). Basically, though, it is clear that Boeing is going to follow the 787 with an all composite replacement for the 737. Boeing has been reasonably reluctant to talk about this, partly because the 737 is still selling very well. However, in the last week, (the Farnborough Air Show will do this) Boeing has made some comments about how it expects the 737 to be replaced by an all composite design before long also.

One expects that Boeing will in fact take advantage of Airbus’ present weakness by launching their 737 replacement relatively quickly – my hunch is that we will see the official launch at the Paris Air Show next year. Even if Airbus can produce the A350 by 2012 as it says it can, there is every possibility that Boeing may be able to get its 737 replacement into production around that time – stealing a second market from Airbus just at the point where it is becoming competitive again in the first. And in all this, Airbus has a huge drain on its resources in the A380, a large, expensive project that relatively few people want, and that (apart from the engines, which are not made by Airbus anyway) is really not much more than 1970s technology. The A380 is the Humber Bridge or Sears Tower of old technology – it is about the limit of the old technology, but it is not ultimately very useful or economic.

Of course, as well as making aircraft more efficient, the new stronger and lighter technologies also do get rid of the limits on size that may have been imposed by old technologies. If anybody now wants to build a 2000 seat aircraft, it can now probably be done within a decade or two. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would buy it, but it is an intriguing thought.

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34 comments to Airbus misses a paradigm shift

  • lucklucky

    Nice. Check Boeing randy’s blog(dont know of anything similar from Airbus) at http://www.boeing.com/randy/ last posts: Talks about Farnborough, and aviation market until 2025.

  • lucklucky

    Also from Randy’s blog

    A quick Google search will tell you that “leapfrog” is a children’s game in which one player “leaps” over another player’s back.
    So, you might say, “Randy, what’s that got to do with the current state of commercial airplanes?” Well, a lot. And also, very little.
    Industry chatter about what Airbus is seemingly about to do with its widebody product line keeps mentioning this concept of “leapfrog.” And I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with the children’s game.
    “Leapfrog” has two important elements: enough leap, and at the right time. And in airplanes we’re talking about the same elements.
    The game of “leapfrog” requires enough leap at the right time.
    First, “enough leap” implies technology – an efficiency and value leap. The “right time” element is all about leaping over something at the correct point. If you’re too late, there’s nothing there to leap over.
    Some people seem surprised when I explain it that way. But, you know, if you jump too late, even if you have an improved product, there’s nobody to leap over because the object of your “leap” may have already moved on by then.

  • Nick M

    And a really big problem for Airbus is that the upcoming A350 is just a warmed over A330 and it’s going to have to go up against the all new 787 Dreamliner. Bugger. Should have thought that one through earlier…

  • Nick M

    Sorry Michael,
    You made my point already. I hadn’t clicked “read more” though there was a lot of it!

  • I’d be less interested in a 2000 person monster than a nice 6 seater that can do VTOL from point to point for a daily commute @ 30 MPG for a reasonable price.

    That gets you into an entirely different scale of market, creating a new market segment that would be wildly profitable. As far as I can tell, right now, the US is scheduled for an air traffic control upgrade to handle that kind of air vehicle to be deployed around 2017.

  • The Dude

    It’s taking place directly above my office :shakes fist:

    They’ve been practicing for the last two weeks :shakes fist again:

  • Dale Amon

    My own feeling is that the next generation Really Big Airplane will be a blended wing/body design. More efficient and with the composite side of the problem sorted, much easier to attack.

    You can get a lot of interior space that way, but you lose the windows.

  • The new materials which have become available, which have in part revolutionized big-structure design and which have revolutionized big-aircraft design, are part of the change.

    The other part of the change is CAD. You don’t build structures with the new materials by using old designs and changing the material used. To really fully take advantage of them, the underlying designs have to change, as we see from the emergence of the cable-stayed bridge.

    But with old-style non-CAD engineering, it would have been too tough, and too risky, to do that. If these materials had become available in the 1960’s, the bridges, buildings, and aircraft which would have appeared to utilize them would have been a lot like what was really built using the older materials.

    It’s the new ability to do computer simulations which makes it possible to take fully advantage of the new materials.

  • Daveon

    I’m waiting to hear what comes out of Farnborough. There are rumours of Airbus sandbagging a number of orders to ensure they have a good show, including a bunch of new A380 ones.

    The economic arguments about market can be batted back and forth, but part of the problem comes down to the popularity of a small number of core national hubs on long haul flights. At the end of the day business flyers, the bread and butter of the large carriers want to fly to key airports and generally not to the small regionals. I’ll move heaven and Earth to avoid using Gatwick and Stansted.

    In the main long haul hubs there is a huge slot problem and a lot of the expected 747 market vanished when the A380 was finally annouced, so I would question Michael’s sequence slightly. Airlines are quite often prepared to wait a long time to get an aircraft which they can use better. I’ve just got back from Dubai and the reality is that Emrites simply cannot operate the passenger loads they are predicting between the airports they use with A340s, 777s or 787s.

    Singapore is in a similar situation, as is, I suspect Cathy Pacific on some of their routes.

    There is certainly a better market for the mid-sized long haul carrier, however, I do wonder about airlines hitting the problem that many US carriers have and also, to a certain extent, Ryan Air. Where you open up new routes with new aircraft to exploit them (i.e. RAs 737-900s) and then find that while the route looked good on paper, there isn’t actually all that much demand.

    Even inside the US market the IAG blog has some scornful things to say on the US new route syndrome. I can see that ending up the same with some of the new European routes. I’m very curious to know how Continental is doing with their Bristol – Newark route they opened last year.

    I fly about 150,000 miles a year, mostly in Premium Economy, when I can, in Business. What I look for from an airline now is space to work, space to sleep and a bunch of other stuff. I don’t get that on 777s, I do on 747s. I’m very interested to see the A380 configurations.

    On a side note; there are some interesting rumours about EADS deliberately talking the A380 down to depress the share price to make their divorce from BAe Systems cheaper.

    I’m also interested to see what happens as we get closer to the 787 deliver date and what impact the delays that are starting to appear have on some of their letters of intent.

    It’s back to business as usual in the airline market 😉

  • Daveon

    I don’t think we’ll ever see a commercial blended wing aircraft myself. I suspect the airlines will kill them everytime they get mentioned, just as they have in the past.

    I flew back from Seattle last year sitting next to a Boeing engineer who was working on the 787. He had some very interesting things to say, and raised some real concerns about the 787 and their experience with the composites they were using.

    He was more of a fan of the A380, which I found interesting.

  • In the early 1970’s I worked with a guy who had previously been a mechanical engineer at Boeing, and had worked on the 747. He said something to the effect that the landing gear design sucked and you were massively risking your life when you flew on that jet.

    Yet I’ve never heard of a 747 suffering any kind of catastrophic landing gear failure, over 35 years and hundreds of thousands of flights.

    Engineers grumble. That’s what we’re like.

  • BigFire

    Re: Nick M

    Airbus didn’t really think Boeing is serious. Boeing have already announced and cancelled 2 other jets. They thought 7E7 would just be another flash in the pan. It isn’t. They basically wasted at least 3 years of R&D time (after Boeing’s initial announcement) and now have to start from scratch. Boeing would have the market lead for at least 5 years (787 enters service in 2008. A380XWB is projected to at 2012 at the earliest).

  • D Anghelone

    On the other hand, the Empire State Building was 58% taller than the world’s tallest building in 1930 (the Woolworth Building, also in New York).

    The fabulous Chrysler Building, 1930.

    “In the summer of 1929, a “race for the sky” broke out on the island of Manhattan. Automobile tycoon Walter Chrysler battled Wall Street powerhouse Bank of Manhattan Trust Company for the title of world’s tallest building in what many historians consider to be the most intense race in skyscraper history. In the spring of 1930, just when it appeared that the bank might capture the coveted title, a small crew jacked a needle-thin spire hidden in Chrysler’s building through the top of the crown to claim the title of world’s tallest at 1,046 feet.”


  • D Anghelone

    On the other hand, the Empire State Building was 58% taller than the world’s tallest building in 1930 (the Woolworth Building, also in New York).

    The fabulous Chrysler Building, 1930.

    “In the summer of 1929, a “race for the sky” broke out on the island of Manhattan. Automobile tycoon Walter Chrysler battled Wall Street powerhouse Bank of Manhattan Trust Company for the title of world’s tallest building in what many historians consider to be the most intense race in skyscraper history. In the spring of 1930, just when it appeared that the bank might capture the coveted title, a small crew jacked a needle-thin spire hidden in Chrysler’s building through the top of the crown to claim the title of world’s tallest at 1,046 feet.”


  • SRobert

    The real problem that Airbus is going to run into with the new model is engineering and manufacturing capacity. They have thrown so many resources into the A380 that there are few left to work on the other aircraft. Not only that, but they do not have the available working capital to plan, prototype, and produce the new aircraft. While the French and German governments might like to dump billions of Euros into the project doing so would amount to an illegal subsity, and expose all Airbus aircraft to massive tarrifs. The manufcaturing capacify also appears to be a problem if they want to turn on a dime and start to produce all composite aircrafts that they have no lead time with. These components require new processes to manufcature and to assemble, and I have yet to hear of anyone explain how Airbus is going to aquire this expertise to such a degree that they will be able to launch a new product by 2012, I just don’t see it happening.
    As for the Boeing engineer, I agree with Mr. Den Beste’s take on the attitude of engineers. Plus, how much do you really know about what this engineer does. I have been lectured by engineers about issues they have little or no real world experience with who are hiding behind their title of “Engineer”.

  • Whatever the outcome, this competition is great news for passengers. Now there is a real incentive to make aircraft quieter, cheaper, and more comfortable.

    For what it’s worth, I fly Emirates about twice a month, usually on 777s or A330s. But they have recently started using A340-500s, and the difference is enormous. Much more space, much better interior design. The A340-500 may not be anything new from a technological point of view, but from my perspective flying back to Dubai from London last Friday it was a vast improvement.

  • Daveon

    Well, as an engineer myself I know what we’re like, and I also know what the engineer in question does on the 787 programme and what he did on the 777. So I don’t take his claims lightly. I can also agree with your comments about under carriage. If the average passenger knew how little clearance there is on under carriage, especially on a heavy landing they wouldn’t want to fly either.

    The capacity problem cuts both ways. Boeing have taken a huge number of forward orders, well, letter of intent and they’ve not hit any of the probably manufacturing problems yet. In all probability the 787 will slip into 2009, which will give time for people to switch to Airbus who should be able to handle the construction loads better by then, especially if the A380 doesn’t sell more.

    The probability is it will continue to sell and they’ll announce more orders at Farnborough this week. I’m with Tim. I had to fly to Dubai on a 777 last week and it was dreadful. I much prefer 747s and do look forward to the A380s especially on the hub to hub long haul routes I do most.

  • Daveon

    Shouldn’t post with jet lag. Hope that’s readable. 🙁

    The other point I forgot is the technology problems cut boths ways. Airbus already have a lot more experience with large composite aircraft structures than Boeing. Shifting to all composite is going to be easier for them than Boeing and I’m curious to see what transpires.

  • SteveA

    In the mid 1960’s, the US Air Force wanted a new, huge, cargo hauler. Boeing and Lockheed competed for that contract. Lockheed won, with a design that became the C-5 Galaxy airplane. Boeing lost, but they’d sunk so much money and effort into their design that they tried to recoup it by turning it into an airliner. And Juan Trippe of Pan Am was willing to foot the bill (more or less).

    That’s why the 747 has that hump; the Air Force wanted a clear cargo deck, so the pilots had to be above the cargo deck. The C-5 is built the same way, but you don’t notice it because the cockpit hump is faired all the way back to the root of the high wing.

    And that’s why the 747 was so ridiculously much bigger than any passenger airliner should have been in 1970.

  • rosignol

    there remains speculation as to whether this was a serious project or a ruse to disguise what Boeing was actually working on,

    Yes and no.

    The Sonic Cruiser was a concept that Boeing came up with because the airline’s response to the Blended Wing design and stretched 747-variants was less than tepid. The customers told Boeing as clearly as they could that they didn’t want a bigger airplane, and had no interest in buying one, but very much liked the 737NG, and would be interested in something similar in the midrange segment.

    So Boeing concluded that midsize was the way to go… but very much wanted Airbus to bet on Big.

  • steven groeneveld

    As someone working in the aircraft industry I don’t agree with the essence of this post. I don’t believe there is a paradigm shift in aircraft at the moment (although in the history of transport technology a major paradigm shift has occurred every 70 years or so). We might be due for one but probably not for 20 to 30 years. Most improvements have been incremental, and mainly from the engines. Increments in aerodynamic efficiencies are hard to come by and in basic configuration of airliners, there has been little change since the B-47 bomber the late 1940’s.

    Composite materials have been around for a long time, can be considered mature, and never have produced the advertised weight savings. In fact many aircraft with a major proportion of composites have been heavier than conventional aluminium. (The Beechcraft Starship being a classic bad example) The other major disadvantage of composites is difficulty of repair, poor damage tolerance and the extreme difficulty of detecting invisible damage. As everyone in the industry knows, airliners at airports get dinged and dented a lot. Composites don’t react well to dings and abrasion. It might take a Comet like incident for everyone to shy away from composite fuselages, but time will tell. This scenario hasn’t played out yet.

    The other scenario that hasn’t played out is the A380 orders. As with all products, and particularly with new aircraft, one gets an initial flurry of orders from the less risk averse customers who also take advantage of launch discounts. The next boost of orders don’t come along until the aircraft is well in service and the real economies of it become apparent to all if and when they struggle to compete. Its biggest advantage lies with that other paradigm affecting factor, airport congestion and the fact that precious few new airports or runways are being, or can get, built.

    Composites have certainly been widely employed in (even) major aircraft components. Its biggest advantage is where shape is important, and a structure can be tailored to fit the shape. However there is no more efficient fuselage than a circular tube, and the newer (at least 20 years old so it is not so revolutionary) Aluminium-Lithium alloys, which have a specific strength as good as carbon fibre, are far better in the damage tolerance and repairability area.

    So I don’t think a paradigm shift is at play here but the vagaries of market will always make the business of guessing the best product for the market difficult. The biggest factors will be fuel cost and airport congestion. Even in route networks the “Hub and Spoke” is alive and well, even with the low cost airlines that claim not to follow that model, so Boeing’s contention that the future market is for smaller aircraft to fragment the market is not quite right. In the short haul market competition from state subsidised rail, and the extent to which states penalise road transport will play a part.

    What I would classify as paradigm shifts, are changes in major modes of transport such as horse, canals, railways, the automobile, steamships etc. The subsonic jet airliner is the current medium to long distance paradigm and only incremental improvements (of the order of a few percent in operating costs) are being made each iteration. Your example of the big changes in length of bridges or heights of buildings does not have a current parallel in aircraft structures or efficiencies. There is no feasible big leap in sight. The Concorde for example was never going to be a paradigm shift because it could not compete economically. Nothing flying at less than Mach 3 could compete economically and the technical problems for anything faster have not been resolved. Cost or overall economic efficiency are the main drivers for progress and the next paradigm shift might not even be an aircraft.

  • Dale Amon

    Some very interesting ideas… however there is at least one area in which there has been a quite major change in the economics and which another commenter mentioned earlier. CAD, simulation and CAM are becoming very sophisticated and mature. We all know that. They are also starting to move out of their niche and become useful to smaller entities which do not have multi-million dollar software budgets.

    There is also a lot of open source work going on, some of which is getting quite good. Given another decade you may be able to design and fully model an aircraft sitting in your room with your pajamas, in between posting to your aerospace blog. The ‘you’ is of course assumed to be an engineer who knows what they are doing. We already see a lot of very creative work coming out of the small space companies who have small staffs and top notch computer geeks.

    So one possible paradeigm shift is that the small, cheap personal air transport or the suborbital transport may come from the bottom and change everything drastically.

    Another potential drastic change is in the drastically falling cost of tunnelling. I believe I recently read estimates of $1000 per meter for an 800km long, 3 meter wide, 150 meter deep tunnel. That is edging down into an infrastructure prices range that puts the intercity and transcontinental maglev train on the horizon of possibilities. Dr O’Neill and others were talking about the possibilities of evacuated tubes decades ago… who can compete with a train that follows a continuous acceleration/deceleration profile? Daily commutes from LA to Manhattan anyone?

    I am not so disparaging of the blended wing body format. True, the airlines do not find it interesting yet. But, as with other innovations discussed here, it may simply just not be time for it yet.

    As to materials, I would say we ain’t seen nothun yet. Nanotechnology is blazing ahead faster than I had really comprehended despite nodding knowingly at the rates of change curves decades ago.

    it is going to be very interesting over the next 20 years, that I can assure you!

  • Nick M

    Problem with Maglev vacuum tubes – massive up front harware costs. The financing would have to be handled very, very cleverly. We don’t want another channel tunnel do we?

    Blended wing-body has the major problem of lack of windows for passengers (40-abreast seating anyone?) and is also awkward for cargo loadin-unloading.

    Personally, I’m a fan of the hybrid airships. Imagine going on a safari in a floating hotel. Dropping down to see the criters on the veldt from the observation deck, landing at night for a BBQ under the stars. Oh, and more practically you can ship an awful lot of stuff. An awful lot of stuff.

    Obviously. Cheap VTOL personal transport is ravishingly desirable… but I suspect it’s going to be a long time before we’re all whizzing about like Rick Deckard. It does have an advantage though in terms of requiring far less infrastructure – “Yes, great grandson of mine, that used to be the M25…”

    But then I like ekranoplans as well.

  • Maybe “paradigm shift” was too strong an expression to use – we are indeed going to be travelling mostly on subsonic transports that look similar to what we use now for two or three decades more at least – but I think I stand by my basic point. Until now most passenger aircraft have been 1960s and 1970s designs that had been steadily updated from time to time with new wings, new engines, and better avionics, and these sorts of updates could get something close to what could be obtained in an all new design. We have now reached a technological moment when it is suddenly better to go back to the drawing board and build new designs from scratch rather than keep updating. Materials *are* a big deal in this being so. Boeing either deliberately or accidentally figured this out, and are updating in this way now, while Airbus are distracted by the A380, which in my mind is no more than an expensive niche product. (I could of course be proved wrong on this, but I don’t expect to be).

    Boeing’s greatest risk is that they can’t pull off what they claim they can for the 787. If they underdeliver then everything swings back again. It could be an interesting couple of years, if so.

  • Blended wing-body has the major problem of lack of windows for passengers (40-abreast seating anyone?) and is also awkward for cargo loadin-unloading.

    The frequent flyer could not care less about windows. I don’t even bother looking out of mine unless I have a camera handy. I prefer to look at the forward and downward cameras.

  • rosignol

    We have now reached a technological moment when it is suddenly better to go back to the drawing board and build new designs from scratch rather than keep updating. Materials *are* a big deal in this being so.

    Materials are part of it, but Dale got the other part- CAD/CAM has become a mature technology. Back in the old days, it took much, much more time and effort to design something, with interminable mockups, models, and wind-tunnel tests.

    If it was just the materials, they’d just be making the same parts out of different Stuff™ and tweaking the designs, instead of coming up with completely new ones.

    Boeing either deliberately or accidentally figured this out, and are updating in this way now…

    Having some familiarity with the organization, I’d put my money on ‘accidentally’. 😉


    There are rumors amoung technical staff that Boeing is experiencing several technical issues on the all composite large structures. Alreadly largly used on fighter jets, they are at best when you can make only one piece, but assembling them is always an issue as you need to glue and rivet and add inserts. The problems occur at the link between composite and the inster, with the nasty thing that composite breaks without external signs, and without the plastic capacity of more usual aluminium based material. The other point to be overcome is weight and that some metal will be required to avoid electrical discharged in the fuselage, and i you add every thing, inserts, faraday protection, you end up without the weight gain expected. I am pretty sure that another year will be necessary to Boeing to find technical solutions, and avoid a disastrous in flight breakage during the first test flights.

  • This week’s New Scientist has an article about the safety or otherwise of composite plastics in aircraft.
    (You have to be a subscriber to read the whole article, though…)

    …Roland Thevenin, composite expert at Airbus, says his company is designing sensors to monitor the A380’s structure in flight.

    Philip Irving is an “expert in aviation damage tolerance” at Cranfield University.

    The industry has a vast body of knowlege on how to monitor and predict the behaviour of metal planes. However, Irving says, cokposite materials are at the same stage metal was 60 years ago.

    I get the feeling that these are all solvable problems. I really enjoy these long articles or yours, Michael, keep ’em coming!

  • The article discusses the economic and market issues of Boeing vs. Airbus, but doesn’t talk much about the political ramifications. I saw a documentary recently about the Airbus superjumbo, and was amazed by the complexity of its assembly, from a geographic viewpoint.

    Apparently Airbus makes wings and fuselage sections in Germany, them flies them to Toulon in France for final assembly, using a humpbacked cargo plane called a Beulga. However, the A380 sections are too big to stuff in the Beluga, so they must truck them through a small village at night, with only 12 inches of clearance at some points. Then they load the parts on a barge, sail to France, then await low tide so they can fit under a bridge built by Napolean. Then load them on trucks again and pass through another tiny village before reaching the giant Toulon complex. They will have to do this for every single plane they build. As we say in the States, its a hell of a way to run a railroad.

    My point is that nobody in their right mind would go through all this crap, when they could just build an annex onto the Toulon plant and make everything in one place. But the decision wans’t made by anybody in their right mind; it was made in the political cirlces that support Airbus. Mightn’t this have something to do with their current difficulties?

  • Sean

    – A380 deliveries are actually a year behind schedule at this point – delayed 6 months last year – and another 6 months this year.
    – I doubt the BWB design is practical for passengers. Those in outside seats would be subjected to quite a ride when the aircraft is banked to turn – no?

  • Dan

    Airplane cabin comfort is more a matter of what the airlines do with it, than how much space is available. I’m looking forward to what Emirates does with its new 777-200LRs when they take over the ultra long-haul routes in the coming years.

  • rosignol

    My point is that nobody in their right mind would go through all this crap, when they could just build an annex onto the Toulon plant and make everything in one place. But the decision wans’t made by anybody in their right mind; it was made in the political cirlces that support Airbus. Mightn’t this have something to do with their current difficulties?

    Perhaps, but not necessarily.

    Boeing doesn’t make very many of the pieces that go into a 7×7, itself- a lot of bits (wings, fuselage) are manufactured in Japan and are either shipped or flown to the factories stateside (most of which are very close to pacific ports- the ones that aren’t tend to make military kit, or do work that can be done once the product can move under it’s own power).

    What Boeing is good at is design and assembly, so that’s what they do.

  • Daveon

    It appears that Airbus were sandbagging orders, which explains the order “drought” they’ve been having. Looks like they had a cracking Farnborough.

  • Jim A

    I think that you may have overestimated the importance of technology compared to economics and politics. The WTC was a much more efficient design than the Empire State Building. It wasn’t that technology had stalled for 30 years, but the depression and WWII meant that the Empire State sat nearly empty for years, which made raising capital for a similarly tall building was difficult.

    The upstairs piano lounge in 747 was a result of the crazy price controls of the Civil Aviation Board. Pre-deregulation, airlines were told what routes they could fly and what they could charge. Since airlines couldn’t compete on price (which is to say efficiency), they competed by ameneties.

    As for the BWB, I love the look, but it is a difficult shape to pressurize, compared to a simple cylindrical tube. You’d probably do it like an air matress, as a series of tubes. As for comfort issues, many people in widebodies have no access to windows, and the off-axis-ness shouldn’t be too bad for passengers so long as the pilot can manage a coordinated turn. Like the sonic cruiser I think they’re just running it up the flagpole and seeing who salutes. If they get alot of interest, they’ll build them. You have to keep in mind how much interest was shown in the Concorde when it was still on the drawing board.