Boeing takes the gloves off

Does the world want a 550-seat, double-deck aircraft or does it really want an ultra-efficient, mid-size 200-250 seat plane that will take passengers where they want to go, and when?

Last week, a Boeing executive in London handed to journalists copies of a heavy spiral-bound dossier. The document, full of helpful diagrams and pleasing colour photographs depicting air travel in the modern age, purported to be an overview of the aircraft market.

‘It’s all about the passenger’ was the clue that headed the first page. ‘Our discussion on the future of air travel is really about how we as passengers are going to travel in the future: non-stops, point-to-point with greater frequencies or connecting through mega-hubs.’

Then comes the question that is gnawing away at the heart of Boeing: does the world want the 550-seat, double-deck aircraft or ‘does it really want an ultra-efficient, mid-size 200-250 seat plane that will take passengers where they want to go, and when?’

What follows are 80 pages of rebuttal and counter-claim to Airbus’s assertion that future demand will be best met by the A380 superjumbo.

The dossier was in fact a long time coming. You could say that a state of phoney war has existed between the two companies ever since Airbus started winning orders for the A380, and Boeing cancelled its competing stretch-747 programme.

At the time Boeing rushed out plans for the Sonic Cruiser. The proposal was such a departure from the competition, that it appeared both an admission of defeat and a move calculated merely to unsettle Airbus.

Eventually this was also scrapped, to be followed by another plan: the 7E7 Dreamliner. This is similar in size to the Sonic Cruiser. But instead of speed, Boeing has gone for efficiency, intending to make it possible for airlines to maintain a large fleet and offer more direct flights. This is where Boeing is sticking, and once the old leviathan of the skies had made up its mind, last week it came out fighting, probably to the great relief of its investors back home.

The 7E7 is measured against the A380 on economics, range, fuselage diameter, noise, reliability, weight, pollution and congestion impact, and is naturally found to be ahead on every score. The exhaustive, point-by-point dismantling of Airbus’ case is perhaps a little late given that 129 orders have already been placed for the A380. Airbus needs to sell 250 to break even, a target it is more than halfway to achieving several years from the launch of the first aircraft.

It is inevitable that Airbus will sell more A380s and this will naturally go some way to shaping the future of air travel in its favour. Boeing is by comparison, well off the pace, and a bold move such as last week was necessary. The intention is to create a background of debate against which the firm can sit down with the airlines and say the issue is not as cut and dried as they think.

But the airline business is in upheaval, and finding it more and more difficult to make money. Boeing says it’s all about the passenger, but whatever happens in the future it will be the airlines who decide how we fly. They are the people who buy the aircraft and dictate the service based on what they have in their fleet.

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