It is hard to imagine just how radical the change in fortunes for the world’s major commercial aerospace manufacturers has been in the last few years. Just ten years ago the smart money in aerospace pointed to the defense sector as the best source of future profitability. But just as this was reaching a peak, the full impact of a near meltdown in global financial markets brought home to Western governments that defense budgets couldn’t just keep on expanding and a new era of military program cuts began.
In contrast, in spite of the grim economic backdrop, global demand for air travel just kept on growing. The steady year-on-year expansion of civil aviation in the Asia Pacific and Latin American regions, as well as in the Arabian Gulf, more than compensated for a slowdown in the ability of established Western airlines to replace elderly jetliner fleets with more fuel-efficient aircraft designs.
The turning point came as this decade opened with a whole new generation of commercial aircraft programs, powered by new, even more fuel-efficient engines. The 15-20% improvements in fuel efficiency, combined with other cost reductions relating to higher reliability, meant that the bottom-line benefit for airlines was too great to ignore.
Another major factor in airline growth has been the rapid expansion of low-cost airlines where new operators could start up business offering passengers cut-price fares and the latest aircraft. It was a winning combination that was to shake up the civil air transport industry. The outcome has been a surge in new orders on a scale that has never been seen before, with sales backlogs and deliveries stretching ahead for seven or eight years.
That 70s Show Up
When Airbus was created in the early 1970s it had one product, the wide-body A300B. In 1974 just one A300B was delivered to an airline. After a very slow start, the aircraft was improved and sales started to grow. A new long-range model, the A310, opened up new markets and pioneered twin-engine extended range operations that are now the biggest sector of the long-haul market sector.
By introducing advanced features, such as fly-by-wire flight controls, sidestick controllers, automatic flight envelope protection, two-crew operation, and glass cockpits, Airbus’s fortunes finally took off in the 1980s and the 1000th delivery was achieved in 1993. By 2007, deliveries had risen to 5000. In March 2015, the 9000th Airbus was delivered. In the meantime the sales backlog had risen to 6300 aircraft and the company was increasing production of its best-selling A320 family toward a monthly output of 50 aircraft.
Continuous product improvement has been the key to Airbus’s market success. The A300 and A310 established a modular wide-body product line that featured a common fuselage width and cockpit and grew to include the more technically advanced A330 and A340. This pair offered a near-identical airframe and wing but with the option of either two or four engines. The enormous increase in engine reliability and added fuel economy saw the four-engine A340 dropped in favor of improved versions of the A330.
Today the A330-200 and -300 are still in great demand and now increased weight versions are available, to be joined in two years by the upgraded A330neo (new engine option) powered by two new Rolls-Royce Trent 7000s, which feature improvements adopted from the Trents developed for the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350XWB. The resulting A330-900 is aimed directly at challenging the Boeing 787-8, and will be in production alongside the all-new, bigger A350XWB, which will also challenge the Boeing 787-9 and 777 family of wide-body jets.
It was originally planned that the A350XWB, with its advanced wing and featuring a higher content of composite materials, would replace the A330, but demand from existing customers with large A330 fleets encouraged Airbus to revamp the design, and with the new Trent engines the A330neo is proving to be very popular as its performance will keep it highly competitive well into the next decade. That does not seem to have had any significant negative impact on A350XWB sales, however, and this latest Airbus entered airline service late in 2014.
Production of the A350XWB is ramping up toward 10 each month to help reduce the backlog of over 800 aircraft yet to be delivered. Using five development aircraft, the A350XWB program has been a smooth one for Airbus, with only minor delays regarding entry into services. The schedule called for this to take place in 2014 and it was achieved.
The popularity of the narrow body A320 family also shows no sign of slackening and new models continue to emerge. The earliest A320s are now 27 years old and many long-time operators are replacing these models with the latest versions. Total sales of the standard A320 family have reached 7679 as of the end of April 2015. Improvements to cabin arrangements have seen maximum passenger capacity on the A320 rise to 188 in a high-density configuration, designed for low-cost and charter operations, and this is being adopted by EasyJet, which has recently taken delivery of its 250th A320 family member.
The smaller A319 and larger A321 cater to varying customer range and payload requirements, allowing an optimized solution for their service route needs with high operational commonality across the family.
The new A320neo models feature a choice of the latest generation CFM LEAP 1A or P&W Pure Power engines and numerous other changes and improvements. Compared to the earlier A320s, the neo models offer a 20% saving in fuel burn per seat, lower noise and emissions levels, double the payload and an additional 500-nmi range improvement. Wingtip-mounted composite “sharklets” improve fuel consumption per passenger by up to 4%, and can be retrofitted to existing A320s as well as featured on new deliveries and neo models.
In January 2015 Airbus announced the launch of a long-range A321, which would offer 4000-nmi non-stop transatlantic range capability, opening up new markets for the narrow-body jetliner and a possible replacement for current Boeing 757s.
The first PW1100G-powered development A320neo aircraft flew in September 2014 and the first LEAP-1A-powered A320neo just had its first flight this past May, yet already total sales have reached over 3620 from 60 customers and first deliveries are expected before the end of this year. Airbus has said it will raise monthly production to 50 by 2017 and may even take this up to 60 if demand continues at present levels.
Sales Go Up, Up, and Away
The A380, the largest commercial jetliner in production, has been in the air for ten years and to date 317 aircraft have been ordered and 159 delivered. The hoped-for one-for-one replacement of the world’s jumbo-jet fleets hasn’t happened, as most long-haul operators have chosen to replace the four-jet 747 with the twinjet 777, the extended capacity 777-300ER being particularly successful. However, on main-line routes that combine the need for high capacity and long range, the Airbus A380 is in a class of its own. The aircraft remains the only commercial jet with two full-length widebody passenger cabins offering a huge range of optional seat and class layouts.
Typically the A380 can carry 544 passengers in a four-class layout (first, business, premium economy, and economy) but in an all-economy high-density layout it can carry up to 853 passengers. The ultra-spacious cabin interior allows airlines to offer passengers more internal volume than any other commercial jet and this can include lounge and bar areas, wider economy seats, and specialized first class luxury facilities, including individual cabins and even bedroom suites.
With a range of up to 8200 nmi, for long-haul passengers the comfort of the A380 has created a loyal following. The large capacity has also brought down the operating costs per seat-mile so that where traffic levels can justify such a big aircraft, the A380 can be a generous profit-maker for its operators. With built-in provision for a future capacity stretch, the A380 is well placed for the day when global air traffic will demand more ultra-large jets to avoid saturation of airport facilities and air corridors. In this respect it is still ahead of its time.
Boeing, the other giant of the commercial aviation sector, has also been clocking up record orders for its family of jets. Last year it brought home 1432 new sales, most contracts (1104 net) being for the legendary Boeing 737 family, now into its fourth-generation upgrade. Monthly production is running in the high 40s and is planned to rise even further as the company gears up for the new re-engined 737 Max family, powered by CFM LEAP-1B powerplants.
The Max brings a 20% reduction in fuel cost per seat and 40% noise footprint reduction. Revised aerodynamics, with an extended tail cone and thickened rear fuselage plus new winglets, have reduced drag and together with the new engines and cockpit (which still retains much commonality with Next Gen 737s) offer yet another worthwhile upgrade to an aircraft that first emerged from the Boeing works in the 1960s. The rebirth success of this aircraft is astonishing. The latest 737 Max seems set to take production well into the second 50 years of its history, making it the best-selling commercial jet ever.
Boeing's second most popular model is the wide-body 777, which is being assembled at a rate of around eight each month. Net orders for 283 were received during 2014. The company needs to keep new orders coming in for the next two-three years to bridge the production gap until the 777-X enters flight development.
The 777-X will be powered by new GE9X engines and will feature an all-new longer wing design with greatly enhanced aerodynamics and raked outer sections that can be folded on the ground to allow compatibility with existing airport stand facilities. It will be the largest twin engine jetliner in service and Emirates Airlines showed its confidence in the new aircraft with an order for 150.
<p >Many of the attractive cabin design features of the Boeing 787 will be incorporated including bigger windows and revised useable cabin width offering more passenger space and seat layout options. With the 787 well established in service and production flows increasing, the 737 Max coming forward as a priority program and a new 777-X entering the development phase, Boeing will have a competitive and balanced family lineup to face Airbus in the coming decade.
The one unknown issue is whether the company will decide to add another new model in the 200-250 seat category to replace outgoing 757s and 767s. The global market and business case for an all-new program is far from clear, though the company will be watching Airbus closely to see if significant airline interest emerges for the long-range A321, which might become a default 757 replacement if there is no rival Boeing product.