My latest column on FT was published recently – and is republished below

Aircraft in the next decade: Part 2

Boeing

The certainties of the aerospace industry were shaken to the core in 2019. Boeing, once the darling of Wall Street, the strongest engineering company in the world and poster boy of American industrial might, has been humbled. 

The ongoing fallout from the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes and resulting revelations of how the company had lost its way are still playing out. Boeing has already removed its CEO, and has bled an estimated $ 5 billion as a consequence of the grounding of the MAX. Production of the aircraft has been halted and getting the complex supply chain moving again will not be easy. 

A bankruptcy of the civilian arm of the company (Boeing also has a large and very profitable military component) is not off the table. This could have huge consequences for the world’s economy, as Boeing’s component suppliers are scattered all over the globe.

An optimist would say that, in the short term, the duopoly of Boeing and Airbus will likely continue. This assumes, however, that the 737 MAX is re-certified and flying again early in 2020.

Airbus

Airbus has not been affected by the MAX debacle, but with production of the A320 family already at maximum capacity, the multinational aerospace conglomerate has not been able to benefit from it either. 

The A321 XLR (Extended long Range) model has proved to be the best seller of last year. The largest variant of the Airbus narrow-body family, this aircraft has a range of up to 10 hours. With 3-3 seating configuration it evokes the days of the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which popularised air travel in the 1960s. 

Part 1 of this series was published on 20 January and can be accessed online via http://www.ft.lk/columns/2020-What-will-the-decade-ahead-hold-for-aviation/4-693893

The smaller A220 (a design Airbus acquired from Canada’s Bombardier) is also selling well, but production is nowhere near as mature as the A320 family. Airbus has adapted a facility in Alabama, USA to produce this aircraft, which will help to some extent. Both these successes, though, identify a peculiar problem for the manufacturers.  

Both companies must be worried that their flagship wide-body aircraft, usually the most profitable lines, are not selling well. Prices of used large aircraft have plummeted recently, particularly for the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380. Development costs for a large new aircraft run into tens of billions of dollars, with little hope of a quick return. While the 777 has probably recouped the development cost for Boeing, Airbus certainly has not with the A380.

With the consolidation of the industry and the growth of Low-Cost Carriers (LCCs), it is likely that the wide-body market will suffer further. The MAX was already Boeing’s bestseller by a wide margin. Should that product be taken out of the market, recovery will not be easy.

New challenges

To add to their worries, the lucrative narrow-body segment (Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’s 320 family) is coming under increasing competition. Not only from Brazil’s Embraer (which now has a partnership agreement with Boeing), but also Chinese, Japanese and Russian companies who are developing all-new models of aircraft. 

Interestingly, all these latest designs are in the smaller 100-150 seat market. Large aircraft definitely seem to be going out of fashion.

However, certification of any new type or variant is going to be extremely complex in the post-MAX world. It is evident that the oversight granted to Boeing by the US Federal Aviation Administration was too lax. Expect long drawn-out certification battles with multiple national safety agencies before the MAX will fly again. This trend will be magnified exponentially for any new aircraft coming on to the market. 

The future is rarely as the pundits saw it

The promise of the early years – ever faster and bigger aircraft – has proved to be a daydream. 

The Concorde, which was to herald a new era of supersonic travel, was the first casualty of the oil crisis. The wide-body airliner, epitomised by the Boeing 747 and later the Airbus 380, has turned out to be less than competitive too. Most airlines are phasing out these giants and replacing them with much smaller aircraft. 

Ironically, Airbus (which bet multiple billions on the A380) is finding that its best-selling product is the A320 family – almost exactly, and ironically, the size of aircraft such as the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 that made airlines viable in the 1960s!

The coming decade will also see the final demise of the four-engine jetliner. Airbus is due to cease production of its flagship A380 in the next few years. Boeing’s 747 (in its Dash 8 freighter variant) will continue for a little longer, but will also end somewhere in the next couple of years. 

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