On the third day of the Dubai Air Show, Boeing finally landed a big deal: Indian startup Akasa Air ordered 72 single-aisle 737 MAX jets.
Otherwise, the first big aviation show since the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the industry in early 2020 has been a showcase for a newly ascendant and confident Airbus.
Boeing’s European rival booked several blockbuster orders and launched a large freighter jet that threatens to break open Boeing’s lock on the air cargo market.
And though the giant new 777X jet performed an impressive aerial display at the show, making its mark with a steeply banking flight routine, key customer Emirates expressed dissatisfaction with Boeing’s delayed and uncertain 777X delivery schedule.
The new order from Akasa is a boost for the MAX as Boeing struggles to get that program back on track following the almost two-year grounding and then the setback from the industry downturn.
The order could be worth as much as $3.3 billion based on market pricing data from aircraft valuation firm Avitas, assuming standard discounts. However, the jet manufacturers never reveal their pricing on individual deals and it’s possible that in the current industry downturn, Boeing discounted the price even more heavily.
Akasa Air is a new low-cost carrier that expects to start flying next year in the Indian market, where airlines have struggled for some years.
Full-service airline Jet Airways, a reliable Boeing customer, went bankrupt and ceased operations in 2019. The Indian government has agreed to sell debt-burdened flag carrier Air India to Tata Sons, owner of the leading Indian conglomerate, in the hope of a recovery in private hands.
And while Airbus in 2006 backed highly successful low-cost startup Indigo, now the largest airline in India, Boeing in 2005 backed startup SpiceJet as its low-cost champion, only to see it stumble badly and contract a decade later.
Boeing must hope that Akasa will revive its fortunes on the subcontinent, where low-cost air travel is expected to boom again as pandemic restrictions lift.
In other MAX news from Dubai, Boeing Vice President Mike Fleming said Boeing has completed the critical design review of enhancements to the flight controls that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency requires Boeing to implement before the largest model of the jet, the MAX 10, is certified.
In a briefing in Dubai, Fleming said Boeing will flight test the improvements on the 737-10 next year.
Then once the MAX 10 enters service, which is planned for 2023, he said “we’ll look into retrofitting” the flight control enhancements to the earlier MAX models currently flying today.
The improvements include a new system check on the airplane’s angle-of-attack sensors and a switch to silence an erroneous stick shaker.
In both MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, a faulty reading in a single angle-of-attack sensor, which measures the angle between the wing and the oncoming air stream, activated poorly designed flight-control software — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — that repeatedly pushed down the nose of each jet until it crashed.
To get MAX planes back in the air, Boeing fixed how MCAS operated and also redesigned the activation of the system so that the angle-of-attack sensors on either side of the fuselage compared readings and did not trigger MCAS if they disagreed.
That was enough to win approval for the MAX to return to service. However, EASA wanted an even more robust check designed for introduction as soon as possible.
Boeing’s solution is not a third angle-of-attack sensor, as is standard on the rival Airbus A320 jet family. Instead, it has designed monitors of the various air data systems that will cross-check each other and catch an erroneous AOA indication.
In addition, another concern of both EASA and Canadian regulator Transport Canada was that a faulty angle-of-attack reading sets off a “stick shaker,” a heavy, distracting vibration of the pilot’s control column that persists throughout the flight. Fleming said Boeing will add a switch so that can be turned off if obviously erroneous.
Aside from the MAX, Boeing’s other significant announcements in Dubai related to the air cargo jet market, which has boomed during the pandemic.
It booked orders for two 777 freighters and also announced that it will open new lines for converting 737 passenger jets to freighters, both at Boeing’s maintenance facility in London Gatwick and at an aircraft maintenance facility operated by KF Aerospace MRO in Kelowna, B.C.
However, the much-anticipated launch of the cargo version of the 777X, already dubbed 777FX, did not materialize in Dubai. Key Middle Eastern customers, including Qatar Airways, are still negotiating terms.
Boeing’s tough position in those negotiations was clear from an interview Emirates President Tim Clark gave to Bloomberg News in Dubai.
Clark expressed dissatisfaction with the much-delayed and uncertain delivery schedule for the passenger version of the 777X, which Boeing has pushed out to at least late 2023 and which Clark said he expects in 2024.
The certification of the 777X is taking much longer than originally anticipated, in part because of intense scrutiny by the Federal Aviation Administration that has turned up multiple problems.
Fleming said Boeing is anticipating a total of 44 months from first flight of the 777X at the end of January last year to its first delivery to an airline, though the FAA will have the final say on when that happens. That compares to 10 months from first flight to first delivery for the original 777 in the mid-1990s.
Meanwhile, although Boeing has dominated the air cargo market for decades, Airbus in Dubai finally launched what could be a real threat to Boeing’s 777FX — a cargo version of the A350-1000. Air Lease Corp. announced its intent to take seven A350Fs.
Airbus had staked its claim to dominating the air show the night before it opened with a light show on the facade of the Burj Khalifa, the well-known Dubai skyscraper, showcasing the European manufacturer’s new branding campaign.
It was pure marketing glitz, a way of saying “We own this air show.”
In the following days, Airbus duly announced huge orders. ALC signed a letter of intent to purchase — “which will be finalized in the coming months” — a total of 111 planes across the full Airbus product range: 25 A220-300s, 55 A321neos, 20 A321XLRs, four A330neos and the seven A350Fs.
And Indigo Partners (unrelated to the Indian low-cost carrier), which buys planes for U.S. carrier Frontier, Wizz Air of Hungary, Volaris of Mexico and JetSMART of Chile and Argentina, ordered 255 additional A321neo and A321XLR jets.
Those were only the biggest orders among several others, the total dwarfing the Boeing order haul.
In Dubai, Airbus executives hogged the limelight, as they typically try to do at air shows.
Seeming intent on consolidating their current single-aisle market share of close to 60%, they spoke of sticking to the plan for record production levels on the A320 even as the MAX struggles to recover.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s presence in Dubai was meek in comparison.
Not yet ready to make bold statements, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun was absent.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Stan Deal appeared at a couple of signing ceremonies and gave just two short interviews, both for television.