Though the world’s two makers of large commercial jetliners divide the airline market almost equally, Airbus beats Boeing hands down on showmanship.
Expect Airbus to steal the 2013 Paris Air Show, opening Monday at Le Bourget, where t
he focus will be squarely on the latest twin-aisle, widebody jets that both companies are developing.
Boeing will provide details of its proposed big new 787-10 and 777X jets, which are derivatives of widebodies now assembled in Everett — and thus vital to the future of that plant.
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But absent any last-minute technical glitches, industry observers expect Airbus to offer something more intoxicating: a flyby of its all-new A350 widebody jet.
The plane, built from carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic composites, made its first flight on Friday. Just a month after the A350 rolled out in Toulouse, Airbus will revel in showing off a real plane that can fly.
In contrast, the maiden flight of Boeing’s first plane built from composites, the 787, came fully 2½ years after the rollout in Everett of what proved to be an empty airplane shell.
Adam Pilarski, veteran industry analyst with consulting firm Avitas, said Boeing executives are convinced the European jet maker will run into big manufacturing problems on its first all-composite jet, as they themselves did on the 787.
“That could be the case,” said Pilarski. “But it could be that Airbus saw Boeing’s problems, solved them, and will do fine.”
The A350 has taken a year longer than the 787 to get from program launch, in December 2006, to first flight. For one thing, Airbus had to overcome production glitches with the intricacies of drilling holes in the new composite material.
Can Airbus advance, without further delay, from first flight to delivering the A350 on schedule a year from now? Boeing took close to two years for that last part, and its early production sputtered badly.
Pilarksi said flying the A350 in Paris will suggest “that they have their stuff more together than Boeing did.”
This year, the single-aisle, narrowbody jet market that has dominated the news for the past couple of Air Shows will get less attention.
Though Airbus will sell more A320neos and Boeing more 737 MAXs in Paris, both programs are already solid successes and so are unlikely to generate big news.
But the success of the proposed big jets from Boeing and Airbus is not guaranteed, which puts those programs under the Paris spotlight.
The current 777 is a cash cow for Boeing, which hopes the 787 eventually will become one as well.
Boeing projects a global market for 8,590 widebody jets over the next 20 years, worth about $2.5 trillion at list prices, or about half that in real money after discounts.
With the 787 battery problems apparently resolved, Boeing is widely expected to formally launch the 787-10, the third and largest member of its Dreamliner family, on the opening day of the show.
That could be accompanied by hefty orders to boost the new plane, including an order for 30 from Singapore Airlines, already pre-announced at the end of May, and likely another from British Airways.
Other potential customers for the bigger Dreamliner include Germany’s Lufthansa and Air Lease Corp., run by industry guru Steven Udvar-Hazy.
The 787-10’s specifications — seating some 320 passengers and offering a slightly shorter range than its siblings, about 7,800 miles — should make it an ideal transatlantic and intermediate-range widebody, potentially a market winner.
Moving forward on 787
In advance of the Air Show, Boeing led journalists on a tour of 787 production in Everett, where a brightly painted 787-9 tail fin advertised that the initial model of this second Dreamliner variant is now under assembly.
The 280-seat 787-9 should fly by late summer and then early next year join the 242-seat 787-8 in service.
In a hopeful portent for the 787-10 that’s coming next, Mike Sinnett, chief project engineer on the 787, said development of the -9 has run smoothly.
“On the 787-8, we struggled because we were creating everything new,” Sinnett said. “On the -9, we weren’t reinventing anything.”
One of the things Boeing reinvented painfully on the Dreamliner was the assembly line.
The production tour revealed that Boeing has quietly let go of one bright idea that didn’t work out in practice.
In the first position on the assembly line, where the three major fuselage sections, wings and tail are all joined together, Boeing early on touted a massive piece of blue and yellow structure which it dubbed the Mother of All Tooling Towers (MOATT), designed to raise the vertical and horizontal tail pieces into position without the use of cranes.
Last month the MOATT was surplused. It’s now fenced off and ready for dismantling.
“We came up with a better way,” said Jeff Klemann, vice president of 787 final assembly.
The MOATT’s removal suggests Boeing has worked out the kinks in the system, decided what really works and finally settled on what it hopes will be a smooth manufacturing operation.
Klemann said Boeing has split the first position on the assembly line in two, with the wings joined to the mid-body section first. The other fuselage sections, tail and landing gear are added afterward. Cranes lift the tail pieces into place.
What will happen to the tons of steel in the MOATT?
“Want it?” asked Klemann. “I’ll sell it to you cheap.”
In January, as Boeing finally put the 787 manufacturing delays behind it, the overheating of two lithium-ion batteries on Dreamliners in service delivered a new setback that grounded the fleet worldwide for three months.
Boeing’s fix is still a drag on production, though perhaps a minor one.
On the Everett tour, Boeing showed off the latest 787 front fuselage section to come in from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan. It had arrived complete with its electronics bay, doors, nose gear and flight deck all preinstalled and pretested by Spirit.
Unfortunately, Boeing must take this pristine fuselage piece and punch a hole in it, for Spirit didn’t install the new battery-containment system — including a vent to the outside for taking any hot gases off the airplane.
Klemann said Boeing is doing that work until the procedure is perfected and can be passed down the supply chain to Spirit.
Despite that, Sinnett said the battery fiasco is now largely in the rearview mirror and the 787 has otherwise proved very reliable.
Perhaps to avoid rehashing the battery debate in Paris, Boeing has not scheduled a briefing on the 787-8.
“History will look back on this and say, we had a failure of a component. The airplane was never in danger … We very quickly solved the issue through a robust series of protections, and we moved on,” said Sinnett.
Boeing will fly a 787-8 every afternoon at the Show, and also will display a parked Qatar Airways 787-8 with a luxury interior.
777X details to come
Besides the likely launch of the 787-10 in Paris, Boeing also will promote its much bigger 777X, the next variant of its Everett-built 777 twinjet, which will feature giant new composite wings and new engines.
It would be a tremendous boost to the Puget Sound region if those composite wings were to be built here.
Last month, a rumor circulated that Mitsubishi, which builds the 787 wings in Japan, would also get the 777X wing.
But Kent Fisher, vice president of supplier management at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, insisted in a pre-Paris briefing that “we haven’t made a decision yet.”
Further, he reiterated comments similar to those made last year by then-commercial airplanes chief Jim Albaugh that suggest Boeing will keep the 777X wings in-house.
“Since the 787, I think we have been public many times that we want to do more in future internally,” said Fisher. “Throughout our history, the efficiency of our wings has been a big differentiator. So that’s going to be a factor in the decision.”
It’s widely expected that Boeing will launch the 777X in the fall, at the Dubai Air Show, where Emirates will likely make a splash with a big order.
But in the meantime, with Airbus picking up the pace on the A350 — 777X will compete with the second A350 variant, the A350-1000 — Boeing cannot afford to sit back.
To stay in the hunt for customers, it must provide more detail on its 777X concept.
Mike Bair, the leader of the 787 program in its early years and now Boeing’s head of marketing and business development, said the jet will come in two models.
The 777-8X will be the same size as the A350-1000, about 350 seats, but with much longer range, not far shy of 11,000 miles. That could prove to be a niche airplane of interest to relatively few carriers that fly ultralong routes, and eventually destined to be reconfigured as a freighter.
The 777-9X, which will come first, will have about 405 seats. With no Airbus rival of that size, it will vie to replace the current 777-300ER and will also be “a very good 747-400 replacement,” Bair said.
The potential success of that idea does raise the question of whether Boeing’s other new widebody airplane, the 747-8 jumbo jet, has a future.
That 467-seat plane is one size up from the 777X, but because it has four engines it will be much less fuel efficient. Sales of the 747-8 are currently languishing, with a net loss of two orders this year and only 55 total orders remaining.
Yet Boeing insists it’s still pouring money into the jet, flight testing both an improved engine package and a fix for the issue that until now has prevented the use of the horizontal tail fuel tank.
“We wouldn’t be investing if it wasn’t our intention to keep it in business,” said 747 program boss Eric Lindblad.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Ray Conner takes the stage Monday morning in Paris.
While he’ll face skepticism about the 747’s future, he’ll have an audience eager to hear details on the 787-10 and 777X.
Then, as early as Tuesday, he’ll have to endure that flyby, a reminder that whatever path Boeing takes, Airbus will compete hard at every turn.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com