Fight for air superiority

Airbus showed off its new extra-wide jet last week, a sign that the fight between Europe and the US for air power is picking up again

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 5:35am

The maiden flight last week of a twin-engined passenger jet into the grey clouds above Toulouse was a signal that the great aerial dogfight between the American giant Boeing and its upstart European competitor Airbus is to resume in full fury.

In spite of denials, Airbus will probably use the Paris Air Show, the world's biggest aircraft sales bazaar, this week for a fly-over by its new 350XWB model, the one that took to the skies at Toulouse. It will be a splendid sight, which will set the hearts of aviation specialists racing at the sleek wings, with their graciously sabre-curved edges, while tech geeks nervously admire the use of new composite materials.

Whether the new aircraft or the resumption of the Boeing-Airbus airfight is good news for paying passengers is a different matter. That is a battle involving airlines, ever greedy to get more bucks for each square millimetre of cabin space, and governments which - sadly - have been lax in their responsibilities for protecting the flying public.

The arrival of the Airbus 350XWB (XWB stands for extra wide body) is a sign that the European company has put behind it the problems of organisation and management that bedevilled its superjumbo 380 aircraft. It comes as rival Boeing is suffering its own problems from delays and glitches concerning its 787 Dreamliner, which, if not producing a nightmare, is causing some sleepless nights.

List prices for a single A350 range from US$254 million to US$332 million. Usually, orders come in billions of dollars.

Boeing estimated that demand over the next 20 years would be for more than 35,000 new aircraft, costing almost US$5 trillion, driven by rising demand in Asia-Pacific and the popularity of low-cost airlines. Of these, 8,590 will for wide-bodied aircraft, like the A350 and A380, as well as Boeing's 777, its updated and bigger Jumbo 747-8, and the Dreamliner and its several new offshoots. By value, wide-bodied aircraft will be worth US$2.5 trillion at list prices, Boeing predicts.

As an example of the bitter feelings between the two companies, they launched suits against each other with the World Trade Organisation, with each claiming billions of dollars in damages because of alleged unfair government aid. The cases are still being bitterly argued after WTO panels found that both companies had breached the rules.

The 350 is controversial. Boeing made a short spoof video purporting to show two Airbus executives discussing a new 350 aircraft and ripping the engines off the previous A330 version, then playing with the fuselage and generally cutting and pasting and patching and putting a 350 sticker on the model until, whoops. The spoof claimed that the Airbus could not match the all-new Dreamliner.

Airbus was indeed tinkering with the 330 and hoping originally to be able to produce a new aircraft cheaply using the fuselage of the 330. The company was given a shock when Steven Udvar-Hazy, the president of the powerful International Lease Finance Corp, attacked Airbus for trying to produce "a Band-aid reaction to the 787".

Chew Choon Seng, the chief executive of Singapore Airlines, added his weight to the criticism, claiming that, "having gone through the trouble of designing a new wing, tail, cockpit" with advanced materials, Airbus "should have gone the whole hog and designed a new fuselage".

Airbus then redesigned the product. Having spent US$15 billion on development costs, it now has an all-new aircraft that can compete for the ultra-long-range medium jumbo market head on against Boeing's Dreamliner.

The new A350XWB uses the technologies developed for the superjumbo A380, with similar cockpit and fly-by-wire systems. It is made of 53 per cent composites, 19 per cent aluminium-lithium alloys, 14 per cent titanium, 6 per cent steel and 8 per cent other materials. The Boeing Dreamliner is 50 per cent composites, 20 per cent aluminium, 15 per cent titanium, 10 per cent steel, and 5 per cent other materials.

The new XWB fuselage has a constant width from the first to the fourth door, allowing a bigger usable floor area. The wings are made of composites, cover an area of 443 square metres and span 64.8 metres. Unlike previous Airbus aircraft, the A350XWB does not have wingtips; instead the wings curve upwards, helping to provide 31.9 degrees of sweep to lift the cruise speed.

Now let the bragging begin. Airbus claims that the A350XWB will be 25 per cent more fuel efficient than "its current long-range nearest competitor" thanks to new Rolls-Royce engines. It also claims that it will have 10 per cent lower airframe maintenance costs and 14 per cent lower empty seat weight compared to competing aircraft.

Both the 350 and the Boeing 787 will be able to fly for 15,000 kilometres without refuelling, although the 787 has a slight 50km edge. The A350 standard model can seat more than 310 passengers against 280 plus on the 787. Boeing's list prices for the 787 are US$206 million to US$243 million, which makes it slightly cheaper, and Boeing had 890 orders for the 787 as of May compared with 613 for the A350.

It is difficult to keep track of who is winning between the two firms, because they play with the figures, citing new orders or the value of new orders (which may or may not be fulfilled) or delivery of aircraft.

Last year Boeing delivered 601 aircraft, just 13 more than Airbus delivered. But Boeing received far more orders in 2012, 1,203 against 833 for Airbus.

The expectation is that all this could change at Paris and that Airbus can come roaring back on the strength of the smooth maiden flight of the A350XWB.

Even the Seattle Times newspaper, published in Boeing's home town, conceded that, "Airbus beats Boeing hands down on showmanship. Expect Airbus to steal the 2013 Paris Air Show".