LONDON — When the Farnborough Air Show opens Monday south of London, still at the beginning of a recovery from the darkest time the industry has seen, the world’s commercial jetmakers will showcase big airplane orders as if this were a normal year.
For passengers, air travel today is miserably affected by high fares, delays, cancellations and staff shortages. For airlines, packed planes and those ticket prices mean some are making money again and beginning to order jets in anticipation of growing traffic.
Farnborough this year will encompass visions of the far future as new aviation entrants peddle dreams of new technologies — decarbonized flight and flying taxis to take you from midtown Manhattan to JFK in minutes.
For Airbus and Boeing, in the more mundane business of resuming long-haul airplane sales, Farnborough could be a turning point.
This first major European air show in three years is set to open under a record-breaking extreme heat forecast of 99 degrees on Monday that threatens to curtail outdoor activity, perhaps even some of the flying displays.
But in the air-conditioned rooms of top London hotels and the air-conditioned chalets of the top manufacturers alongside the Farnborough runways, business will be done and airplane sales deals struck.
Airbus is expected to sell more of its hot-selling A321neos, including an order from German carrier Condor.
And Boeing — which can offer airlines earlier delivery slots than Airbus can — is likely to get substantial 737 MAX orders, from Delta Air Lines among others.
According to a person with knowledge of the deals, details of which are closely held, Airbus will announce an order for up to 30 of its widebody A330neos from Malaysia Airlines, beating out the 787s offered by Boeing.
If Boeing can also grab some widebody sales wins, confidence will grow that the pandemic-induced industry slump is beginning to end.
Boeing has more to prove: Its leadership must convince the world that the company is emerging from the chaos of recent safety, quality, regulatory and financial troubles and that some stability is in sight.
At a press roundtable in central London on the eve of the air show, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal will make the case.
With major obstacles standing in Boeing’s way, he has a hard sell.
Approval by the Federal Aviation Administration for Boeing to resume deliveries of the 787 — largely halted due to manufacturing defects since fall 2020 — is unlikely to come during the air
An audit of 787 production announced last month by the Department of Transportation inspector general could add delay. Regulatory approval isn’t expected until next month at the earliest.
In addition, hope has ebbed that China will soon start taking deliveries of the MAX and order new planes as it begins to open up after a severe lockdown.
This month China favored Airbus with a pre-show commitment to buy 292 of its airplanes — while an editorial on a state-run website chided the U.S. and made plain this was a deliberate geopolitical snub of Boeing.
And overall, the condition of aviation is fragile.
The aerospace supply chain remains blocked in places by labor shortages and pandemic-induced losses. The jet engine makers are heavily affected. The CEOs of both Airbus and Boeing have complained they cannot get enough engines to finish their jets.
While Boeing seems to be adjusting production to that reality so that it’s only slowly increasing the number of MAXs built, Airbus is forging ahead aggressively and rolling out planes without engines.
As a result, dozens of “gliders” — planes that are complete except for their engines — are sitting parked and powerless outside the Airbus factories.
Offering respite from these current problems, at Farnborough the aviation world will also look to the future.
There will be multiple presentations and panel discussions on environmental sustainability and how alternative fuels and technologies from electrification to hydrogen-powered flight can decarbonize flying to save the planet.
And there’ll be serious hype around flying cars.
Boeing has invested $450 million in Silicon Valley-based Wisk, just one of the startups exhibiting at Farnborough that are vying to make air taxis a reality.
“Things were not very good in the last few years,” said veteran industry analyst Adam Pilarski, of consulting firm Avitas. “The industry is down. So play on the positives, on dreams. Why not?”
Boeing on edge
Boeing will fly two airplanes at the air show’s afternoon flying display: the new widebody 777X and the single-aisle 737 MAX 10, the final and largest model in the MAX jet family.
Both will look grandly majestic in the sky, especially the giant 777X with its folding wingtips extended to provide an enormous wingspan of more than 235 feet.
Yet both jets are emblematic of Boeing’s current troubles. Under rigorous FAA scrutiny, each is seriously delayed and neither is yet certified to fly passengers.
Though Boeing flew the 777X for the first time in early 2020 and has since rolled out more than two dozen of the jets, those are all in long-term storage. First delivery is now delayed until 2025 — five years late — and the program has already added $8 billion in unplanned costs.
As for the MAX 10
To avoid that catastrophe, Boeing wants Congress to extend a regulatory deadline that would allow the jet to enter service without an upgrade to the system that alerts the crew when something goes wrong during flight.
Boeing insists the system is safe as is. Critics say it can and should be improved.
Pilarski in an interview put the chances of the MAX 10 being delivered to airlines at no more than 50-50.
“Congress is not easily predictable now,” he said. “I don’t know what they will do.”
Even the possibility of cancellation will seriously shade what is expected to be Boeing’s highlight news of the air show: a likely order from Delta for more than 100 MAX 10s.
If that order does come through at Farnborough, it will be the first sign of repair to Boeing’s badly damaged relationship with Delta.
Delta executives were outraged in 2018 when Boeing made an ill-advised and failed attempt to have the government impose tariffs to stop Delta from buying the Airbus A220.
Since then, Delta has not ordered a Boeing jet while adding hundreds of Airbus planes, especially the A321 and the A220.
The prospective order is largely because Delta wants to maintain its 737 pilot cadre and the MAX 10 has the large size it wants for its fleet. If the MAX 10 were canceled, it’s not clear Delta would substitute a smaller MAX model.
Longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, of consulting firm Aerodynamic Advisory, sums up the challenges facing Boeing and what he sees as the only way forward:
“The MAX 10 is at risk. And the 777X is at risk. And nobody can explain what the hell is happening with 787. And they won’t do a new jet anytime soon. Is there a future?” he asked.
His answer: Top executives “should be presenting a vision to the world of what Boeing’s engineering can achieve, an all-new jet that the market wants that leverages their talent and experience. Nothing less.”
Yet as commercial airplanes boss Deal tries at Farnborough to inspire confidence in Boeing’s future, he’ll be hampered by his inability to get ahead of the FAA decision about resuming 787 deliveries.
And he won’t promote a vision of an all-new airplane design. Boeing has publicly pushed that out some years, despite a serious loss of market share to its ascendant rival.
Aboulafia considers this “a complete surrender to Airbus.”
As Deal tries to convince the journalists in London of Boeing’s future, he’ll have to rely on small gains, such as the achievement in June of a stable 31 jets per month MAX production rate in Renton.
On Tuesday, 30 MAXs were parked around the perimeter of the Renton plant, a mix of MAX 8 models and the smaller MAX 7 variant, all with engines.
Like the MAX 10, the MAX 7 is also not yet certified to fly passengers. The fact that a number of them are out on the ramp being prepped for delivery suggests Boeing thinks at least that model will soon get cleared to fly.
Airbus approaches Farnborough more in control of its message.
It’s already producing each month 50 or so of the A320 family of jets that competes with the MAX and plans to increase that to 63 per month next year and 70 the following year.
The development of new variants such as the long-range A321XLR coupled with the fast production hikes is an aggressive strategy coming out of the downturn. Pilarski said Airbus aims to take advantage of Boeing’s weakness to grab a two-thirds share of the single-aisle market that once was split 50-50.
“They have a chance and they decided to go for it,” said Pilarski.
In a pre-show interview with Aviation Week, CEO Guillaume Faury acknowledged severe supply chain problems — especially delays in receiving engines — induced by the pandemic and the subsequent labor shortages.
Yet he said Airbus is working to overcome the supply issues and is sticking to its ambitious production ramp-up plan.
Airbus delivered only 297 airplanes in the first half of the year, so it will have to step up the pace to achieve its target of delivering 720 jets this year. Boeing delivered 216 jets in the first half.
Journalists and analysts at the show will look for any discussion of an even more aggressive possibility: that Airbus might within a few years launch a larger version of its new A220, acquired from Bombardier of Canada and now built in Canada and in Mobile, Alabama.
An A220-500 seating 150 to 170 passengers would be the same size as the most popular 737 MAX variant, the MAX 8, but a newer design.
Since it would also threaten to replace the A320, Airbus will delay launching it to preserve the A320 order backlog. But an A220-500 could well be timed to enter service late this decade.
Calling it “a MAX 8 killer,” Aboulafia says, “that’s how you get to 75% of the market.”
Can airplanes be environmentally sustainable?
Aside from what Aboulafia calls “the real world of aerospace … the actual business of building jets,” Farnborough will have plenty of futuristic sideshows, including alternative propulsion technologies, new fuels, supersonic jets and urban air taxis.
One theme will be how aviation can avoid the risk to the business from concern over global warming: There will be multiple presentations at Farnborough on how to achieve the aviation industry’s declared goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Airbus says it will develop a liquid hydrogen-powered plane by 2035. But CEO Faury concedes this will be a smaller aircraft, with fewer than 100 passengers, not a replacement for the current jets it builds.
Boeing instead focuses on the more realistic goal of replacing today’s Jet A gas with Sustainable Aviation Fuel, or SAF, meaning some kind of biofuel that recycles carbon.
To make the point, the MAX 10 and 777X jets Boeing will fly at Farnborough made it to the U.K. burning a blend of SAF and regular fuel.
Yet there are serious doubts about whether the infrastructure to produce and deliver SAF in sufficient volume can be developed. A recent Bain & Co. study concluded SAF production won’t be nearly enough to meet aviation’s needs.
One problem with how Airbus, Boeing and the rest of the aviation industry are heavily promoting the possibilities of SAF, is that they have very little role in making it happen.
The huge investments needed will have to come from energy companies, new startups and governments.
Boeing Chief Sustainability Officer Chris Raymond concedes that his job is to help “bring the right parties together and get the right people around the table.”
The SAF discussion at Farnborough will therefore be mostly rhetorical talk — aimed at convincing the public that aviation is doing what it can, and convincing governments that they shouldn’t harm the industry with too onerous environmental mandates.
At a Boeing pre-Farnborough briefing, Raymond led his presentation by noting that more than 4 billion people fly every year and that the industry supports 87 million jobs globally and $7 trillion in commerce.
Summarizing the message the industry needs to convey, he added: “Aerospace is a force for good in the world.”
One aviation sector that has spawned multiple new entrants will be prominent at Farnborough: Urban Air Mobility, or urban air taxis.
Silicon Valley startup Wisk is a joint venture between Boeing and Kitty Hawk Corp., an eVTOL startup backed by Google co-founder Larry Page.
Competing startups include Joby and Archer Aviation, each also headquartered close to Silicon Valley; Vertical Aerospace of the U.K.; Lilium of Germany; and Eve Air Mobility of Brazil.
These startups are developing small air passenger vehicles in the form of electric vertical takeoff and landing — eVTOL — aircraft.
They have collectively raised billions of dollars in investment with a vision of the future where urban air taxis become a form of mass transport.
Wisk adds a twist: Its vehicles will be pilotless. After passengers step inside they will take off and land autonomously, guided by sensors and artificial intelligence.
The technology is there. Real aircraft demonstrators are flying. The engineering is impressive. Farnborough will be a showcase.
However, there are serious obstacles to eVTOL aircraft becoming a routine form of mass transportation.
The technology has to be proved safe in the stringent regulatory framework of air travel. Without a pilot, add another layer of safety scrutiny.
A new air traffic system must be devised to safely handle swarms of low-flying aircraft.
And will ticket prices for this be affordable?
Wisk will have its two-seat Cora vehicle on display on the ground at Farnborough, not flying.
Aboulafia dismisses Urban Air Mobility as a “shiny object” that attracts engineering talent but won’t be central to mass air travel and won’t make money.
“That is not Boeing’s business. If they want to get into that business, fine,” he said. “They’ll be disappointed, but have at it.”
At Farnborough, attendees will be able to touch the shiny objects. They won’t yet fly.