Where might the Dreamliner fiasco take Boeing and Airbus?
It needs to be recognised that the 787 project has the potential to ruin the Boeing Commercial Airplane business and force the company as a whole to re-organise its defence, space and other technologies activities into a separated entity.
Such thoughts are probably already being entertained in EADS, the owner of Airbus, as to how it might excise the parallel but financially much smaller debacle that has overtaken the A400M Airbus Military project for a short and rough field lifter should that project fail.
The Airbus A400M is a calamity at the moment. Unless everything goes incredibly right for that project over the next two years EADS itself has recognised that it might collapse because of a withdrawal of support by key partners.
However today is not about the A400M but the 787 Dreamliner, for which there are more than 800 orders.
Many of the orders would be liable in some manner to liquidated damages claims against Boeing if the project is cancelled or delayed by another two years, or results in an airliner which delivers too few of the benefits that were claimed for the wide bodied twin engined medium capacity jet.
None of these outcomes can be dismissed outright.
However the more likely, indeed necessary early outcome will be the removal of the management responsible for the 787 project.
The airlines who are looking for daylight in relation to their Dreamliners need to be able to talk to people who do not dissemble or trivialise the issues.
Taking the wider perspective on this, none of the claimed benefits of an electric-plastic 787 have been demonstrated. One core element of the Dreamliner design advantages is claimed to be the replacing of the functions powered by bleed air in conventional jets with electricity generated directly by the engines in the Dreamliner, resulting in a net fuel saving and simpler maintenance needs.
The other element was the claimed lighter, stronger, corrosion free and low maintenance features of carbon fibre reinforced plastic glued together in laminates and baked in giant ovens. Which started to break apart prematurely when stressed in a static test Dreamliner.
It the five and a half years since Boeing claimed the necessary technology was in place to achieve these benefits the result is one prematurely broken wing test assembly and a prototype of a jet it is unwilling to fly.
And this is the initial, smaller 787-8 model, not the stretched and improved 787-9 which is the version Qantas will now first take delivery of for Jetstar in 2013.
The 787-9 is supposed to be available to airlines around two and a half years after the 787-8.
Boeing has an astonishing amount of work to do in order for 787-9s to be ready for Jetstar service non-stop across the Pacific or one stop to Europe in four years time. Qantas knows that. It is applying its own stress test to Boeing, announcing earlier today that by mutual agreement the 787-9 will be delivered to its leisure and low cost brand Jetstar from mid 2013.
The lethal clause in the Qantas statement, that the decision was not influenced by this week’s revelation of a design fault and postponed first flight, has been widely misunderstood.
Today’s announcement came after weeks of haggling and was a done deal before the 787 prototype was done over in the last ditch announcement of the cancellation of its first flight.
A subsequent decision by Qantas on fleet matters will take these issues into account, once Boeing tells it what is going on, what the design changes are, and how long it will really take to get the Dreamliner certified.
Where does this possibly leave Airbus?
Bear in mind that Airbus was stampeded by the early sales success of the Dreamliners, and a distinct lack of interest in its evolutionary proposals for an A350 that was just a tarted up A330. So it came up with its own super plastic extra wide body or XWB A350 line up.
There have already been some hints that this XWB A350 offering, although also very successful in gaining early orders, is more than likely going to slip by some degree behind a target entry into service in 2013.
These hints may have much to do with the intelligence Airbus gathered in recent years from the supplier base for the 787 about how overweight and under performing various aspects of the Boeing project were proving. They could have given Airbus cause to slow down some of its own work on the A350 to reconsider how composites are used in some of its sections.
It would be very surprising if somewhere in Airbus a rather extensive review of its approach to a high composite design isn’t already underway, even though the A350 is to be manufactured quite differently to the Dreamliner.
That in turn could lead to entry into service delays in the A350 family, offset only by the continuing success of the A330 family, which is unbeaten in the efficiency stakes over flights of up to around 9 hours duration in the larger -300 version, and much further in the smaller -200 model.
Some analysts see the incremental improvements Airbus is offering in the A330 line up as introducing in a low key way at least some of the functionality promised for the original A350 model that didn’t excite airlines in 2004 and 2005.
I was at a Boeing Christmas party in 2005 shortly after Qantas chose the 787 over that version of the A350. The Boeing executive based in Sydney who clinched that order said he had mixed feelings about the win even though it saved him from certain dismissal had he failed.
His reasoning was that if Qantas had ordered the first version of the A350, Airbus would not have gone ahead with what became the XWB version, and this would have removed the threat they would come back with an all new design to rain on the Dreamliner’s parade, which was in part a correct prophesy.
But as it turns out, that version of the A350 would already be close to beginning flight testing now for service in 2011, and matching or surpassing the 787s on current indications if that jet makes even makes it into service the same year.
Airbus, in this hypothetical, would have blunted the 787′s early introduction, and followed it up with something larger in capacity and amenity in the middle of the next decade, which is fairly close to where the revelations about the Dreamliner this week have left the big jet rivals.