The large twin-engine, twin-aisle competition for the future is gaining momentum following the opening of the Airbus A350 Final Assembly Line in Toulouse last month and the customer meet October 31-November 1 hosted by Boeing to discuss the 777X concepts.
What is clear from talking with customers who attended the Boeing meeting is that the 777X is far from clear. General concepts have emerged as the favorites: a composite wing and wing box, new engines, a conventional metal fuselage and system upgrades.
The wing span remains undecided, with one concept including folding wingtips to keep the airplane within the 777’s current airport “box.” Whether Boeing elects to go with a sole source (GE) engine or a dual source (GE plus either Rolls-Royce or Pratt & Whitney) is also undecided.
Boeing is showing concepts for the 777-8X (a 350 passenger model that would replace the 777-300ER and compete directly with the A350-1000), the 777-8LX (replacing the 777LR) and 777-9X, a new-sized airplane with 407 seats that technically drops it into the Very Large Aircraft (400+ seats). The 777-200ER would be replaced by the forthcoming 787-10.
Customer reaction to the 8X and 8LX has been tepid at best. The 9X is drawing a lot of favorable attention, say people who attended the meeting.
Boeing CEO Jim McNerney on the 3Q12 earnings call said 777X EIS could be the end of this decade or early next decade. Soft ATO for the 787-10 apparently has been given, with Boeing talking to airlines about the plane. Formal ATO slipped from October to this month, according to customers we’ve talked to. Firm orders are likely to follow shortly after ATO. We believe Boeing could have around 100 orders by year-end, down from our original prediction of about 200 given the slip in ATO.
The A350-900 and A350-1000 compete with the current 777-200ER and -300ER lines. Airbus doesn’t have a version competing with the niche -200LR. The 200ER is already a “dead” airplane and the -300ER for now has the market segment to itself. The A350 is sold out to 2020 and Boeing has 335 unfilled 777 orders through September, a 40 month backlog at the current production rate of 8.3 per month, to mid-2016. Boeing has plenty of delivery slots during a period when Airbus does not.
The absence of delivery slots is why A350 sales have stalled. Boeing has used this to cast doubts on the -800 and the -1000, calling the -900 an “orphan.” This is typical Boeing hyperbole, but Airbus hasn’t done an effective job of countering the Boeing public relations campaign. This campaign also runs counter to some of Boeing’s own internal analysis, which shows the A350-1000 to be much more efficient than the -300ER. (Otherwise, why tinker with a winning product by developing the 777X?)
The A350-800 currently has more firm orders than the -1000 but it’s widely agreed that the -800 is likely to be the model in least demand in the long-term. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for the aircraft. The question is whether Airbus’ R&D for it will be sufficiently inexpensive to provide a sufficient ROI.
Boeing is waiting to see what the final design for the -1000 is before proceeding with the 777X, say customers and others we’ve talked to familiar with Boeing’s thinking. Although Boeing has done a good job casting doubt over the -1000, customers and potential customers tell us this is over-stating the situation. True, questions remain over the airplane: Airbus’ focus is on getting the -900 assembled and first flight by mid-year next year. Customers expect another delay in EIS beyond that announced this year by Airbus, slipping into 2015. As a result of the redirected engineering resources, development and finalized design of the -1000 has slowed. Issues, according to our discussions with customers, primarily revolve around weight, engine thrust and field performance. Rolls-Royce has room for more thrust (but at what cost to fuel economy?), and weight at this stage of development of any airplane is always an issue. Weight-and-thrust affect field performance.
Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airlines, has waged a public campaign urging Airbus to put more range into the airplane. But his needs are unique and his requirement falls within the last 5% of airline operations, and Airbus (and Boeing) are loath to design an airplane for only 5% of the missions. Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al-Baker jumped on the Emirates bandwagon, but the truth is the -1000 fulfills every mission required by this airline.
Although Boeing has engaged in a very effective public relations campaign against the A350-1000 and -800, customers (and potential customers) we talk to paint a very different picture from the critics. Concerns exist, yes, and these are typical of concerns at this stage of airplane programs. The airplane is running late and customers expect more delays.
Our conversations with suppliers and customers don’t reveal anything to match the Boeing hyperbole.
© 2012, Addison Schonland. All rights reserved.