Sky high competition

The Airbus A380 has been around for so long now it’s easy to forget that it was once neck and neck with Boeing’s Dreamliner in a race to stake its claim as a glimpse of aviation’s future.

Finally, after a delay of more than two years, the Dreamliner has joined the party, taking to the skies for the first time last night from an airfield near Seattle.

The 787 was originally conceived in 1993, and yesterday’s test flight was held back by more than two years thanks to a series of technical problems, many of them owing to a lack of suitable fasteners for the composite structures. Some critics expressed doubt over the safety of the aircraft. Others were more charitable, suggesting that such a fundamental change in the building blocks of a civil aircraft was never going to be easy.

The A380 and the 787 represent startlingly different approaches to fundamentally the same problem: how to make civil aviation more fuel efficient and sustainable. Airbus’s solution of a gigantic aircraft that can carry up to 850 passengers, minimising fuel use per passenger, is competing with Boeing’s vision of a smaller aircraft that isn’t restricted to hub airports, removing the need for connecting flights, allied with pioneering use of lightweight composite materials – more than half of the aircraft is built from carbon composite and titanium. Able to carry around 250 passengers, the Dreamliner family will ply routes of up to 8,200 miles – London to Jakarta in one hop – using 20 per cent less fuel than a conventional aircraft.

In contrast to the unseemly mudslinging that characterized the development of its leviathan, Airbus, perhaps overcome with festive mood, congratulated its US rival on what it described ‘an important achievement in [Boeing’s] history.’ But Airbus will be watching with interest. Boeing has received orders for 840 aircraft, including advance sales to British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Monarch Airlines, outstripping the A380’s orders.

The Dreamliner faces a further 10 months of tests to obtain full certification of its air worthiness before deliveries to airlines can begin. If all goes to plan, the first deliveries could take place at the end of 2010.

Ironically, Airbus may still have the last laugh. It is now building its own composite airliner, the A350, designed to compete directly with the Dreamliner and claimed to be eight per cent more fuel efficient. Slated to enter service in 2013, the A350 already has 505 firm orders from 32 customers. The smiles and congratulations at the Dreamliner maiden flight were doubtless hiding clenched teeth.

Jon Excell

Deputy Editor