Fires the First Shot in the New A320/737 War with Boeing -
part 2 of 4
Why Airbus and Boeing Don't Want To -
But Must - Replace Their Aging A320 and 737 planes
A mockup of China's new
C-919, a plane that will directly compete with both the A320
and 737 series.
Part 2 of
a series on the needed evolution of the Airbus/Boeing
A320/737 aircraft. Click the links at the bottom to read
through the other three articles in the series.
Although arguably the most
important planes in their complete ranges of planes. both Boeing
and Airbus have been loathe to 'upset the apple cart' and to
update or replace their best selling 737 and A320 series of
But their inertia has
encouraged new competitors to appear, and at least one of the
competitors seems to pose a very credible threat to the
It is now well past time for
Boeing and Airbus to urgently react and respond to these new
Why Boeing and Airbus Don't
Want to Replace their 737/A320 Families
Developing a successor to
the present planes would cost anywhere from perhaps $10 billion
to $15 billion in development costs, and would require a massive
Neither company has either
the spare cash or the spare engineering resource at present.
Boeing is scrambling to correct the terrible shambles of its 787
program (and struggling to pay for the appalling cost overruns
too - see 'An
Extraordinary Indictment of Boeing's Trouble-ridden 787' for
Boeing also has problems
with the far from optimum state of its 747-8 program as well -
this latter program being not nearly as high profile, due to the
near complete lack of interest by all airlines in the plane as a
Airbus, for its part, is
finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel in
terms of the problems it had with its A380 production, and now
is scrambling as urgently quickly as it can to get its new A350
off the drawing board, onto the shop floor, and into the skies
so as to catch-up to the major lead which Boeing sort of
currently enjoys with its 787 (a lead which Boeing is frittering
away with every new problem and every new delay in getting the
787 to market). Airbus also has to pay for the development
costs of the A350 as well.
Meantime, the two
manufacturers have been in a type of Dutch standoff, where it
could be thought the unwritten rules of the game were 'You don't
replace your plane and I won't replace mine'. With there
being only two options for airlines to consider, if both Airbus
and Boeing sat on their hands and did nothing, neither
manufacturer would lose (although also neither would win).
But these days, corporate
management seems more willing to embrace an objective of 'not
losing' rather than seeking out an objective of 'winning'.
And so, years have passed with nothing substantial being done to
update these two increasingly tired families of planes.
Time Favors the Slower
Talking about winning and
losing, the two companies are playing a game of chicken with
each other - who will be the first to blink? By delaying a
decision as late as possible, each manufacturer stands to
benefit from, as time passes, continued improvements in new
manufacturing technologies (ie composite materials).
Amazingly, aircraft design
and build processes are going through a new growth spurt of
development. After decades with no real change at all to the
increasingly tested and proven concept of manufacturing planes
from riveted sheets of aluminum, Boeing and Airbus are now
developing new manufacturing processes using new composite
materials, and neither company has yet reached a new fully
optimized understanding of how best to use composites in place
Each year sees an increased
understanding of how to use composites in airplane construction,
and currently Boeing and Airbus are using very different
approaches to incorporating composites into their airframes.
It is easy for phone
manufacturers, with a short development cycle, low development
costs, and the potential to sell many millions of any given
design of handset, to flood the market with model after model
after model. And for us as consumers, at most we are
making a two year commitment to any given phone, so it is easy
for us to buy a phone without locking us into a long term future
with an increasingly obsolete phone.
But it takes five to ten
years, and more than ten billion dollars to develop a new
airplane, and airplanes have an economic life of twenty or more
years. Both the airlines and the airplane builders are
playing for high stakes, and with a rapidly developing key new
technology, no-one wants to invest in something less than a
fully optimized implementation.
The Danger and Downside of a
At present Boeing and Airbus
are more or less evenly matched as between the 737 and A320.
Both companies would prefer their plane to be a clear winner,
but they're probably happy enough not to have a clear loser.
When the two companies
develop successor planes, they have the duality of, on the one
hand, possibly coming up with a better plane than the other
company, but on the other hand, possibly coming up with a worse
On the basis of 'better the
devil you know than the devil you don't know' both companies are
probably very happy just to leave well alone at present, rather
than to risk a huge downside as part of striving for a huge
Enter - Some Jokers in the Pack
Ooops. The lazy cozy
marketplace, with two manufacturers, each mainly motivated to
preserve the status quo rather than to change it, is starting to
Other airplane manufacturers
are threatening to present credible competitors to the A320/737.
At present, Airbus' smallest
plane is the A318, which seats 102 passengers in two classes or
about 117 in one class, and Boeing's smallest plane is the
737-600, which seats about 110 in two classes or 132 in one
class. Neither company has bothered with smaller planes,
leaving that to other companies such as Bombardier in Canada,
Embraer in Brazil, and various other companies that have
variously succeeded or failed to a greater or lesser extent.
But now Bombardier/Canadair
is developing a plane (its CS300) that will seat about 119
passengers in a two class configuration or 130 passengers in a
single class, and has taken 57 orders for the plane already,
with first deliveries due in 2014. Embraer already has a
plane (its 195) that can seat up to 122 passengers.
Credible competitors are springing up at the bottom end of the
Competitors are also
appearing that threaten to strike deep into the heart of the
727/A320 core market.
In Russia, Irkut Corp is
developing three models of a new plane, the MS-21, which will
seat either 150/162, 181/198, or 212/230 passengers (in two
class or one class configurations). They claim to have
already taken orders for 146 planes, and project the plane to
start trials in 2014 and enter commercial service in 2016.
The plane is claimed to be
10% - 15% more efficient than comparable Airbus/Boeing A320/737
An already in production
Tupolev plane has languished, gleaning few sales, but if the
latest version, the Tu-204SM, proves successful, it too could
become a competitor. It carries either 142/164 or 175/210
The Russian originating
threats arguably pale compared to an emerging new competitor
from the region that presents as the largest single market for
new passenger plane sales - China. The mainly government
owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or as it is
generally known, Comac, is developing two planes.
The smaller, the ARJ-21,
holds 70/95 or 95/105 passengers, and so has been largely
ignored by Airbus and Boeing. The ARJ-21 is currently in
trials, with six planes built.
The second plane is however
a direct threat to the 737 and A320. This is the C919,
which is planned to be offered in up to six different models,
carrying between 130 and 200 passengers, and with the first
planes expected to take to the skies in 2014 and to enter
commercial service in 2016.
Comac took its first orders
for the C919, totaling 55 planes and options for another 45 at
the Zhuhai Airshow in China in November 2010.
This is not a huge number of
pre-orders, but it is early days for the plane yet, and it seems
reasonable to predict that the largely Chinese government owned
manufacturer will be at a competitive advantage when it comes to
selling to largely Chinese government owned airlines in China.
You might laugh at the
notion of China suddenly launching a successful airplane
manufacturing enterprise. But you'd be ill advised to do
so. Most of everything we surround ourselves with these
days comes from China, and just recently, China has displayed
its aerospace prowess by successfully cloning state of the art
Russian Su-27 fighter jets (now known as China's J-11B).
It has convincingly shown that it can build excellent fighter
China is currently being
aided in its passenger plane development by western companies,
so it is leveraging western expertise to shorten its development
cycle. The Chinese built C-919 plane has to be considered
as a massive threat, particularly because the Chinese market is
a huge one for both Boeing and Airbus.
So, while Airbus and Boeing
have been carefully doing nothing, increasingly substantial
competitive threats are materializing around them. Like it
or not, they are finding they have no choice but to do
This is part 2 of a
series on the needed evolution of the Airbus/Boeing A320/737
aircraft. Please see also the other parts of this series :
The vital importance - and growing
problems - of the A320 and 737 families of airplanes
2. Why Airbus and Boeing
don't want to - but must - update their aging airplane series
3. Engine issues and what
Airbus and Boeing could do
4. Boeing's big problems
If you liked this, you might also enjoy our multi-part series 'Where
is Boeing Going'.
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24 Dec 2010, last update
21 Jul 2020
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