A350 - Modern Airliners

Airbus Versus Boeing

United Airlines Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 on final approach at San Francisco.

For the first time since 2011, Airbus has outperformed Boeing.

As we all know, there are two main plane makers in the world today making the lions share of commercial passenger-carrying aircraft. Boeing and Airbus are more or less a duopoly in the skies and have been keenly fighting for market share for a number of years now. They’ve both had wins and setbacks from which they have managed to recover with lessons learned.

Now that 2019 is behind us, a year that many are quite glad to have in the rearview mirror, it might be interesting to see how it washed up for Boeing and Airbus.

It’s not hard to see which aircraft model was the most prolific in 2019. The Airbus A320 family of aircraft has been selling well for Airbus and in a year where the Boeing 737 MAX was not compromised by groundings, that aircraft should have been delivered in the same numbers.

Let’s not forget the turn around in the fate of the Super Jumbo Airbus A380. That aircraft was set to pick up the reins from the Queen of the Skies, the much loved Boeing 747, and take us into the new Millenium in style. What Airbus failed to recognise was that the advent of much better engine technology. This technology paved the way for the giant twin-engined jets to service those long overwater routes previously reserved for the four-engined airliners. This was bad news for Airbus as the sales of the A380 fell well short of the break-even point where the aircraft sales had covered the development and manufacturing costs. As if on a signal, different airlines cancelled their A380 orders or at least reduced them. The huge Emirates order will keep manufacturing going for a limited time until all orders of the type dry up.

It is not all bad news for Airbus, however. Where some of the A380 orders were cancelled, they were replaced by orders for the new A350 XWB. Even Emirates converted some of its A380 orders to A350 XWB orders. Obviously a cheaper option for airliners, and one that will continue to be developed into the future.

The smaller A320 family of aircraft have a higher production rate than the other models which is obvious from the graphic. These aircraft are produced in multiple locations to try and keep up with demand. Airbus is also ramping up the A220 production. The A220 was, of course, bought from Bombardier of Canada.

So, mixed results for Airbus. What of Boeing?

Boeing’s story is perhaps much more dramatic and has been very much in focus throughout 2019. As we know, the first event that gave a clue that all was not well with Boeing’s new 737 MAX happened in October 2018, when Lion Air flight 610 crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia. The investigation started to show there was a problem with the system that prevents the aircraft from going into a stall. The heightened likelihood of a stall was anticipated due to a larger engine on this model needing to be placed further in front of the main wing to allow it to be raised higher to achieve ground clearance.

The Boeing delivery figures for 2019 show clearly the gap left by the delivery of the smallest model, the 737. The MAX deliveries should have been around the 570 aircraft mark, not 121 as shown above. The larger aircraft such as the 787 and 777 have longer production times and so fewer are produced compared to the 737.

Tragically, this assessment was further proven correct when a second 737 MAX, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, crashed in similar circumstances after departure from Addis Ababa in March 2019. Not even six months after Lion Air. The aviation world immediately responded by grounding the Boeing 737 MAX pending further investigation and rectification of any issues that were found. Boeing continued to produce the 737 MAX in the hope that the grounding would be lifted and deliveries could commence. As 2019 wore on it started becoming obvious that the MAX was not going to allowed back in the air anytime soon. The production was slowed from 52 to 42 aircraft per month, and on 14 March 2019, the first cancellation of a MAX order was received. It was from Garuda Indonesia for 49 aircraft. There have been a number of others and as we write in January 2020, Boeing has suspended production. To be honest, I believe they simply don’t have the space to park any more.

There are around 400 aircraft ready to be delivered. If and when the all-clear is given and dependant on what remedial work needs to be done on completed airframes to make them airworthy, Boeing will schedule the delivery of those aircraft while firing up the production lines again.

United Airlines Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 on final approach at San Francisco
Here we see a summary of the 737 MAX order book from first orders back in 2011. Everything is progressing quite well, with a bit of lull in 2015 and 2016. First deliveries start rolling out the door in 2017 and 2018 shows a good solid performance. In 2019 we see the wheels fall off. We have negative orders due to cancellations by Garuda Indonesia and others and deliveries all but dry up as well.

There have obviously been some bad decisions taken down at Boeing. We can only hope that they can learn from their mistakes and turn this into a win for all. Faith needs to be restored with the airlines and of course their customers, the travelling public. There is a common saying used by many, “if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going”. They need to make people feel like that again to get back in the saddle.

So Boeing versus Airbus? Clearly it has been a win for Airbus in 2019. The European planemaker came late to the party, compared to Boeing and its long history, but there is no doubt that they are a worthy adversary in the big airliner market.

One giant leap.

Philippine Airlines Airbus A350-900

The story of aviation is certainly all about balance. How can you go further but still carry a profitable amount of payload? It is all about trade-offs. You can certainly fill an aircraft to the brim with payload, but you will have to leave fuel behind in order to be light enough to get off the ground. You can alternatively load up with fuel to go a long way, but you will then have to leave passengers and cargo behind, so once again you can become airborne.

Even with the newest technology those simple laws of physics still apply.

The Air New Zealand Boeing 787-9 will be the tool of choice when Air New Zealand opens its new long range route, Auckland to New York in 2020. The 787 is one of the new breed of giant twin jets using composite materials in their construction which offers greater strength at lower weights. This is the great enabler for ultra long range routes.

It seems, however, that every few decades improvements in technology allow us to take that next step. Whether it be the materials used in aircraft manufacture, the power and reliability of engines or the corrections to design theory. All evolved through lessons, often learned at a high cost. For instance, the move from canvas and wood to aluminium, the lessons learned about metal fatigue. The advent of the Jumbo jet, which brought travel to the common man. All, like our foray into supersonic travel, have been game changers. Some of these technologies have stayed and grown, others proved to be less popular. Not necessarily because they were bad in any way, but because they weren’t economical in most cases.

When all is said and done, airlines and airliner manufacturers are businesses with shareholders who expect to make a profit on their investment. Airlines find routes on which they can make a profit carrying passengers and/or cargo in a profitable way. Attracting customers depends on offering the service at a cost that is competitive and palatable to the market. The airline industry carries horrendously high operating costs. High fuel costs, aircraft that cost millions each as well as maintenance and other costs. So minimising cost, without impacting the level of service or safety is paramount.

The QANTAS Boeing 787-9 is currently being used on the ultra long range Perth to London route. QANTAS is embarking on what they call Project Sunrise which will see new non-stop routes opening from Australian cities to points all over the globe. On the 19th October 2019 a proving flight left New York to fly non-stop to Sydney, an exhausting 19 hours and 16 minutes.

Like any industry, it is important to use the right tools for the job. Airliners are those tools, and each of those models and variants has a very specific purpose and niche in the market. For example, smaller twin jets which can fly short to medium ranges to carry a small number of passengers more frequently. Larger transcontinental jets that carry many more passengers over greater distances.

So back to balance. The travelling public is becoming ever more mobile. Holiday makers travelling all over the globe to find those, as yet, unspoiled destinations. Business travellers, similarly, need to get to all sorts of far flung destinations to close that deal. To the business traveller, time is money, so get me there quickly. To the leisure traveller, too many hours in that economy class seat are soul destroying, among other things.

This is where technology is currently being focused. Being able to fly further from more origins to more destinations. What does that mean?

Let’s look at the iconic Boeing 747. It was designed to operate out of big city airports. It is big and needs a big runway to take-off and land on. So, the system, known as hub and spoke was used. For example, you take the Boeing 747 from London Heathrow to New York JFK, then change to a smaller commuter airliner to go on to a secondary city. That makes for a long journey, not very convenient. There were several factors that led to things being done this way. One is engine reliability. Aircraft and their engines need to be certified (ETOPS) to fly long over water routes. This is particularly true of twin jets.

For many years, aircraft like the 4 engine Boeing 747, Boeing 707, Douglas DC8, Airbus A340, as well as the 3 engine Douglas DC10 and Lockheed L1011 were the mainstays of trans-oceanic travel. Airbus perhaps came a little late to this game with the Airbus A380. Certainly, a marvel of aviation technology, the A380 has not met its sales potential for Airbus. Existing customer airlines have shortened their orders as they have seen that the game has changed.

The age of the giant twin jet is upon us.

Engine technology has enabled the production of engines with a far lower failure rate then in the past. Through testing and the resultant certification, large twin-engine jets like the Boeing 787, Boeing 777 and Airbus A350 are able to fly further from the nearest available airfield then past twins. This is what makes trans-oceanic travel possible.

Delta flies one of the worlds longest non-stop routes from Johannesburg to Atlanta which takes around 16 and a half hours using the trusty Boeing 777-200LR. Shortly we should being seeing the newer Boeing 777X, which will come out in in a 777-8 and 777-9 variant.

The economics are obvious. Twin jets require less spares to be kept in store, less maintenance. Not being as big as their Jumbo and Super Jumbo predecessors, they can fly into smaller airfields, doing away with the need to transfer through busy main hubs.

So, what about the further part?

The new twins, particularly the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, use a high percentage of composite materials in their construction. Carbon fibre and plastics provide strength but at a lower weight than aluminium. This delivers benefits in having a lighter aircraft with the same if not higher strength. Keeping the base weight down enables a higher payload which is great news for the airlines operating them.

Back to the balance. Being able to carry a higher payload means we can carry more fuel without leaving as many passengers behind for those long-haul routes. This is important for more remote parts of the world, like Australia and New Zealand. QANTAS the Australian national carrier, for its part, is focused on Project Sunrise. The aim is to fly non-stop from Australian capital cities to major destinations around the world, like London and New York. They have already been operating from Perth to London non-stop for a few months now, a flying time of 17 hours 45 minutes. On 19 October 2019, QANTAS took delivery a Boeing 787-9 with which they performed a publicity flight under the number QF7879 from New York to Sydney, non-stop. The flight took 19 hours 16 minutes and carried 50 odd passengers and crew. Data was taken of how each passenger dealt with the nearly 20-hour flight. It will be interesting to see their findings when they are publicised as this may help us to understand and mitigate the effects of super long-haul flight.

Air New Zealand announced that they would commence flying non-stop Auckland to New York, a flying time of between 17 and 18 hours. The options for travellers in a hurry to get to their destinations are certainly about to explode. Whilst these services will no doubt be aimed at the upper end of the market for now, I’m sure they are looking at ways to make sitting in economy for those extended flying times possible.

AirlineOriginDestinationMilesDurationAircraft Type
Singapore AirlinesNewarkSingapore9,53418h 45mA350-900 ULR
Qatar AirwaysAucklandDoha9,03217h 50mBoeing 777-200LR
QANTASPerthLondon9,00917h 20mBoeing 787-9
EmiratesAucklandDubai8,82317h 5mAirbus A380
Singapore AirlinesLos AngelesSingapore8,76917hA350-900ULR
United AirlinesHoustonSydney8,59617h 15mBoeing 787-9
QANTASDallas Fort WorthSydney8,55717hAirbus A380
Philippine AirlinesNew YorkManila8,52016h 45mA350-900ULR
Singapore Airlines and
United Airlines
San FranciscoSingapore8,44616h 35mSQ A350-900ULR
UA Boeing 787-9
Delta Air LinesJohannesburgAtlanta8,43916h 25m777-200LR

How do you feel about super long-haul flight? Would you be keen to take a nearly 20 hour flight, and what class of travel would you travel in? We would love to hear how you travellers feel about that?

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