Whether or not Paris Air Show 2013 sees a flying A350 next month, the real contests will be between airliners that aren’t going to get into the air until later this decade.
The highest stake game is that of the new engine technology versions of the hugely profitable high volume Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families, waged respectively by the 737 MAX and A320 NEO programs.
So far Airbus is out in front both in terms of total sales and availability, as its guidance is for first deliveries from late 2015 compared to the second half of 2017 for the Boeing program.
However the appetite for fuel costs savings and promised lower servicing costs is such that really large airlines, such as American, Norwegian, and Lion Air of Indonesia are ordering both NEOs and MAXs in their hundreds, while more sceptical carriers like Delta, Southwest and Ryanair, are driving hard bargains on ‘run out’ fleets of current technology 737s, arguing that they need them sooner, and getting them cheaper will make the net benefits of the costlier new engine technology jets less attractive for some years to come.
(Qantas as a group has ordered more than 100 A320s, most of them NEOs, and Virgin Australia has ordered a small number of 737 MAXs, signalling its future emphasis on larger wide body jets for major intercity routes reflecting growth and congestion issues at Sydney airport and to an increasingly obvious extent at Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth.)
At the bigger end of airliner size the heat is really on when it comes to Boeing arguing the merits of its 777-X successors to the current highly successful 777 models, which are under early challenge from the Airbus A350-1000, which is a very significant upgrade in size from the A350-900 which is about to begin its test and certification program with a view to entering service late in 2014.
While the A350-1000 and the 777-X offers are not identical in size/range combinations they are more than capable of taking sales off each other, but with the Airbus contender being available from late 2017, possibly as much as three years sooner than the Boeing options.
What has been notable in recent months has been the speed with which the 777-X range went from being available anytime from late 2017/ early 2018 to ‘maybe’ late 2020. But there could be very good reasons for this, with Boeing benefiting from having a larger jet potentially more in step with growth in demand for higher capacity fleet solutions than Airbus with the A350-1000.
At the highest capacity part of the market the Airbus A380 has no competition, but the unanswered issue is when or if Airbus will product a new even higher capacity of that jet.
The highly visible and vocal elephant in the room in these matters is Emirates, which is the world’s largest by far operator and buyer of future deliveries of both the A380 and 777, and its is insisting on bigger and better things from both.
There is an interesting and extremely detailed examination of the challenges Boeing and Airbus face with their projects in Aspire Aviation, but it arguably relies too much on the believability of manufacturer claims for some of its conclusions.
The reality of airline demands on Airbus and Boeing is far tougher than this, and the outcomes in terms of performance figures and sales success are much less predictable than either manufacturer would have us believe.