Should the 787 be allowed to fly?

February 27, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Boeing has made a proposal to the FAA that would provide an interim fix to its 787 battery and wants the FAA to approve the idea and allow recertification testing of the solution to start.  The NTSB is not due to issue its own report until late March but it is reported that Boeing wants to get the aircraft flying again by April.

I have mixed feelings about this proposal for the simple reason that an interim fix is comprised mainly of “toughening up” the battery with additional steps taken to prevent and/or contain thermal runaway.  No one has said why these batteries are being challenged more than they should be.

On the other hand, it’s notable that the 787 aircraft built today comprise 50 aircraft plus a rather substantial test fleet that managed to fly many cycles and many different profiles before two successive battery events.  This doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem but it does cast doubt, in my opinion, on the problem being the actual battery.

Even if it isn’t the battery itself that is the problem, extra containment strikes me as wise.

It seems that if Boeing wants to come out of this latest problem with any credibility, it really should be prepared to indicate exactly what the problem is and what not only the interim fix is but what the final fix will be.  When you have both pieces of information, that’s when you ask for an interim fix.  Right now, it is unclear if anyone understands the exact root cause of the problems.

I’ve had it suggested to me that Boeing must understand the root cause given their application for an interim fix.  If it were 10 years ago, I would agree with you.  Today, I think Boeing and, in particular, it’s executive leadership, have not held to Boeing principles on finding solutions to problems.  In light of that and as much as it pains me, I think it wiser to wait until the root cause is understood before approving a fix to the lithium batteries.

A better alternative interim fix, in my opinion, would be installation of a safer battery technology.  I’m sure Boeing doesn’t want to engage in this because it would require other changes to other systems.  If Boeing hasn’t made this their Plan B yet, it really shakes my confidence in their ability to solve problems.

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Who has it? Boeing or Airbus

February 20, 2013 on 10:20 am | In Aircraft Development | 2 Comments

Aviation and airline consultant, Richard Aboulafia, has written about re-thinking his position about Boeing after many years of seeing Boeing as a stronger company.  This is no small thing, in my opinion.

Aboulafia makes several good points about how each company has evolved over the past decade or more.  Airbus has built a stronger and stronger company both on profits but also on making the right business case.  While I think Airbus has gaps in its products, I also think that Airbus has also been the leader in arguments for and against aircraft for the past 15 years.

Boeing has been been reacting to Airbus on many different levels since the mid-1990′s.  The last leadership Boeing has displayed on aircraft is the 777 and, let’s face it, that aircraft had the benefit of being last to market in the contest between Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Airbus.

Boeing created the 737 Next Generation aircraft line in response to the Airbus A320 series line and while Boeing made a business case for its 737NG, it was based essentially on being a legacy aircraft that was cheaper to operate.  It wasn’t based on being the better aircraft.  There is a reason why Airbus has made so many inroads in the United States over the past 15 years and it isn’t because they have an inferior, more costly product for operation.

Not only did Airbus suck demand away from the Boeing 767 line, it managed to eat away at 777-200 sales as well and did it all with the A330-200/300 series aircraft.   The A330 not only was a better response to the 767, it also was more “right sized” for almost all of the routes being served by 777-200 aircraft.  It offers excellent fuel economy, excellent operating economics and continues to not feel old or dated.  That’s no small achievement in a business where you get to create a new product for a demand maybe every 20 years or so.

While I think the A380 is an ego project with a future that is far more limited than what Airbus / Emirates believes, they’ve got the aircraft flying and doing so very reliably.  They also killed most of the remaining demand for the Boeing 747.  The 747-8i is not going to be more than an ultra-niche aircraft.  It might be a little more in demand than the 747-SP and it might attract cargo companies for a few more years but it very, very clear that the A380 killed the 747 pretty effectively.  If nothing else, Boeing no longer has the massive profit generator that the 747 once was and that’s significant.

What has Boeing done in the last 15 years or so?  It got the 717 and killed it in the hopes that it could sell more of the 737-600.  That didn’t work out so good and it’s notable that the 717 continued to be a very effective money-maker for those who have owned it.

It’s provided winglets and PIPs (performance improvement package) to the 737 series which have kept it in the game against the A320 but only just so.  And when Airbus defined the airlines needs with the A320NEO, Boeing stumbled around for a year and gave us the 737MAX when it could have forced Airbus to abandon the NEO by announcing an all new 737 replacement.

The 767 is sold in tiny quantities still but mostly it was kept around to win the KC-46 tanker program.  Boeing is selling the United States a bargain tanker replacement but one that is based on an airframe that is about 30 years old.  Think about that.  Now think about how long the Air Force kept the KC-135 tankers so far.

The 787 . . . well, this aircraft has plagued Boeing with some pretty bad PR to date.  It’s yielded some good PR, too, but it’s really exposed Boeing for what it has become:  A committee managing an aircraft business on the basis of extracting the last bit of value possible from tired products.   The committee decided it could let everyone else do its job and design its next airplane and that hasn’t worked out so well.

The 747-8i?  Niche aircraft, old design, not attractive to most airlines and compared to the 777-300ER, just not up to the job as much as airlines seem to want.

The 777-200/300 is 20 years old and the Boeing Committee’s plan is to push away doing anything with it for another 7 years.  This despite the fact that airlines have directly and positively responded to a refreshed, stretched design.  Airlines are entirely willing to have a re-winged, stretched airframe with enhanced engines.  Not only willing but nearly clamoring for it.  Boeing’s response?  Yeah, yeah.  When we get to it.

The 787-9 is being built now but too slowly.  The 787-10 hasn’t really been aggressively pursued despite the clear encroachment of the A350 series into this territory.

My point is that Boeing is slowly and methodically ceding strengths to Airbus.  While Airbus may not be the best governed, best run aircraft manufacturer, it is at least making every effort to to execute with excellence.  That excellence is embodied by good engineering, good value and modern technology.

So, yeah, I agree.  Boeing just isn’t the company that it was and should be.  It lacks visionary leadership.  It lacks engineering leadership and it lacks self-honesty at this point.  It can continue as a company for many years to come but it isn’t going to be the Boeing we remember.  It isn’t going to be the Boeing we keep willing it to be.  It’s going to be that company that makes things but which slowly lets its lifeblood ooze out to others.  Or at least that’s where I think it will go if it doesn’t acknowledge the need for improved leadership and more risk taking.

Some would say that Boeing took too much risk with the 787.  I would respond that they farmed out all their big risk to others and looked to cash in with everyone else sharing that burden.  They now have realized a great deal of risk, yes but how much of that could have been avoided altogether if Boeing had just built the damn thing as it had with previous airframes?   And how hard would it be to answer tough questions about a battery and charging system if you had designed the thing yourself?

And how many more times is James McNerney (chairman and CEO of Boeing) going to declare publicly that his company is a great company and his 787 is a great airplane without acknowledging the very real problems that sit on his doorstep?

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Dreamliner Woes

February 11, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

There has been some development in the investigation(s) going on to determine the nature of the battery problem on the 787.  Primarily, it is now known that the battery in the Boston 787 incident as the source of the fire in that there is a battery cell that has been identified as the source.

The battery manufacturer has been investigated closely and no quality assurance problems have been identified in their facilities.

Boeing has asked for and received permission for test flights and has done at least one successfully.  No surprise there.

Let’s not forget that this airliner has been flying around in tests and for airlines for over 3 years now.   While there is no doubt that a problem could have persisted through testing and introduction into service, if it were an easy problem to reproduce, it would have been a problem that came to light sooner than this.

The alarming part of the problem isn’t the whether the battery is of good design or even if the charging and control systems are the source of the problem.  It’s that when those batteries go, they really go.

I expect that Boeing has made changes to controls and/or how the battery is mounted and maintained and is performing test flights with instrumentation to get the FAA to approve an interim fix.  Then there will be an expectation that the battery will either be redesigned or replaced with safer technology.  Both could take as much as a year to do.

Would the FAA approve an interim fix?  I absolutely think so.  Sadly, that decision may be driven more by economics than science which means that we’ll have some doubt about the interim fix as its deployed.

I am beginning to think that Boeing is shoving its head deeper and deeper into a hole over this problem and mostly because Boeing CEO Jim McNerney seems bent on just issuing assurance after assurance in the belief that Boeing credibility is the paramount thing to rely upon here.

Despite Boeing’s assurances that they take this seriously and are heavily engaged in a fix, I can’t escape the feeling that they’re trying hard to explain this away as opposed to performing a full mea culpa and dig in with an honest root cause analysis that serves everyone’s concerns at this point.

In fact, I believe doing the latter will cost far less over the long run than the antics going on presently.

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More comments on the 787 problems.

January 18, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development, Airline Fleets, Airline News | No Comments

With the temporary grounding of the 787 and the program review kicking off on the design and certification of this airliner, there is more and more fear of it.  I agree that the battery failure looks horrific.  Some (Christine Negroni is sounding particularly shrill to me.) are derailing into what, to me, seems like hysteria, over the battery failure in Boston.

The battery issue in Japan was not a fire.  It was found to be “swollen” and that it had leaked electrolyte.  An important issue but not a fire.

Facts are important in this situation and there is one hell of a lot of speculation going on.  So let me join in:

I find it very curious that these problems have cropped up suddenly and, so far, on one airline’s aircraft.  I keep wondering if there is something being done incorrectly in the operation of the airliner to cause this problem.  I would have expected more failures to occur at this point than what has occurred it was a fundamental flaw in the design.

It’s possible the quality assurance for the battery manufacturing is not very good.  It’s possible that the battery design itself is flawed.  It’s possible that the pilots are operating the aircraft in a manner that is overheating these batteries because of an unanticipated design issue. It could be a battery protection circuit issue or a design flaw in that circuit.

We’ll get the answers.  The problem will be solved in one way or another.

I even think the comparisons to the DC-10 and AA Flight 191 are a bit amusing in one respect:  Flight 191 happened because someone was performing an unapproved procedure to maintain an engine.  In other words, the aircraft was being handled incorrectly during maintenance.

But to run around shrieking “Danger! Danger!” is really kind of foolish.  Wait for facts, then make judgements.

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Who is getting the 787?

September 30, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development, Airline Fleets | No Comments

The 787 has been delivered to several different customers now and it is worth looking at who has received their aircraft thus far:

  • Air India (2)
  • All Nippon Airways (14)
  • Ethiopian Airlines (1)
  • Japan Airlines (6)
  • LAN (1)
  • United Airlines (1)

And many are set to be delivered in the near future.  Airlines such as LOT, China Southern, QATAR and Hainan Airlines should all be receiving their first 787 aircraft as well.

Notice anything yet?  With the exception of United Airlines, all of these airlines are far away from the North American continent.  It exposes just how much US based airlines have *not* been thinking far ahead for the past decade.

And it shows just how far they have to go to catch up with the efficiencies that other airlines will be enjoying in the near future.  One has to ask oneself how it is that Air India has two 787s already and Delta, American Airlines and US Airways have . . . none.  With none on the horizon.

Yes, United Airlines will be receiving more and more as time goes by but they are the only ones for the near future.

Airlines have to be managed tactically (short term) at any one moment.  But they must be planned strategically and failing that, you’ll see their fortunes decline considerably at some point.

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Aboulafia gets it.

August 27, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development, Airline Fleets | No Comments

Airline industry analyst, Richard Aboulafia, gets it.  He’s written his monthly letter and addresses almost exclusively the mis-steps that Boeing has been engaged in.  You can read it HERE.

Even if they seem like me too’s, I want to dig in here.  The 787 and its launch was a signal event for Boeing in that they managed to not really do anything innovative for nearly 2 decades prior to that.  The 777 did embody some innovation, yes, but it also had a lot of roots in evolution too.  The 787 signaled that Boeing was to raise the stakes considerably.

The effect was to make the market start responding to Boeing rather than see Boeing react to its competitors.  That was a very good thing.  Even despite the 787 problems, Boeing managed to command the attention of both customers and its competitors.   Admittedly, that has been diluted somewhat by Boeing’s “McDonnell Douglas” approach to the 747-8i.

In the narrow body race, Boeing barely got on the train.  It got on but barely and even today there are things we just don’t know about the 737MAX that we already do know about the A320NEO.  It’s taking a bit too long to reveal the 737MAX, in my opinion.

The market response to the 777-X concepts was an unqualified “We want it!”.  You could not have had a more positive response to the ideas being floated and those responses were notable both for Aboulafia’s reasons as well as one other:  They came from just the right mix of airlines.  The kind of airlines that are near ideal as a mix of customers.  You should never, ever ignore that.

More importantly, not only is the defection important psychologically and within the market.  Here’s another problem:  When these customers defect, you may not get a chance to address your mistakes with them for 20 or more years.  That makes a defection very, very bad in terms of impact to a business like Boeing.

Finally, a capital intensive business such as Boeing doesn’t win by tossing rewards to its shareholders.  It wins by being brave *and* right, over and over again.  To be right in a business that requires engineering innovation to provide the gains that airlines want in performance, YOU MUST BE BRAVE ENOUGH TO TRY.

Boeing just signaled that its losing its courage.  Not good.  Not good at all.  Aim for excellence, execute to get to that goal and you will win and thrive.  Wait to see what the other guy is doing in order to provide something just 1% better leaves you exposed to being a has been.

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Iran wants to build it’s own single aisle airliner

August 11, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Iran has announced its intention to build a 150 seat single aisle airliner to meet its own (projected) need for 600 airliners in the future and to eliminate the problems in acquiring aircraft from Airbus and Boeing due to sanctions.

This will never happen ever.

Expect Iran to approach China about participating in some small way on the COMAC 919 airliner some time next year.  China might even agree to it but I rather doubt it given the US participation in that project.  China needs the US way more than it needs the irrational government of Iran.

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China’s threat to Boeing and Airbus

June 13, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Periodically it’s fun for mainstream media to hype the Chinese threat to Boeing and Airbus in the coming years. Irresponsible people point to the homegrown aircraft the ARJ-21 and the coming Comac C919 as evidence of this.

There are a few problems with this. First, the ARJ-21 really isn’t quite 100% homegrown. It is a regional jet based on tooling that China had from its assembly of the MD-90 aircraft. It’s wing was designed by Antonov and it’s cabin cross section, nose and tail are identifical to the DC-9 series.

Second, this aircraft hasn’t proven all that ready for real use. The wing designed failed stress testing thus limiting flight test envelopes at the direction of the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority. There are some reports that this jet is not particularly light for the mission conceived of for it and it isn’t being designed to be exactly a leap ahead of existing regional jets that not only do the job as well or better but which have far superior support in the world (Embraer E Jets and Bombardier C-700/900/1000).

It’s likely that the ARJ-21 will enter into service and find itself wholly irrelevant.

The same fate is likely for the Comac 919. This is a paper aircraft conceived as a competitor to the Airbus A320 series and Boeing 737 series aircraft. The C919 will use a CFM LeapX engine and is targeted to have a range that is significantly less than current Airbus and Boeing models have much less the new A320NEO and 737MAX aircraft. I already smell trouble here.

Comac is using technologies from avionics companies and engine manufacturers but lacks experience at integration and production that make such an airliner possible on a commercial basis. In many respects, for such an airliner to gain credibility in the marketplace, it almost has to be better than A320NEO and 737MAX offerings and it isn’t. Not on paper and certainly not in real world performance. It’s sub-par in every way.

The belief that a superior price will win over airlines is wrong. That superior price is unlikely to be less than what aircraft manufacturers are already offering airlines making large orders and price is only one component of acquisition. Other things involved are its cost to operate, cost to maintain and support from the manufacturer. The Comac 919 is not going to meet or beat either Airbus or Boeing in these areas.

So why would any airline buy such an aircraft? Because the Chinese government told them to, that’s why. It has orders but they come from Chinese airlines and in exceptionally small quantities.

Until China takes on a project that it can achieve integration and competitive operating economics on, it won’t learn how to build a major airliner. The idea that a chinese competitor arrives in the market place even in 2020 is silly. At this point, one could use a crystal ball and guess. My guess is that it is 2030 or beyond and by that point we’ll see Boeing and Airbus offering hyper-efficient new airliners that raise the stakes even higher. 2030 seems a long way off but it is only 18 years away. Look how long it took Airbus to gain marketplace traction with its product line under what were arguably far superior conditions compared to Comac’s. When you do, even 2030 seems awfully optimistic. It could happen but I, personally, wouldn’t bet money on it.

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The Charleston 787

May 25, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Boeing’s Charleston 787 assembly line rolled out its first 787 a few weeks ago and it took flight for the first time on May 23 for  a “B1″ flight test.  3 more 787s will be built at Charleston this year and all 4 are for delivery to Air India (which can ill afford these right now but that’s another blog post.)

Am I the only one struck by how relatively smoothly the Charleston site got built, staffed and its first airplane assembled?  Obviously there was some learning curve alleviated as aircraft were assembled in Seattle.  However, this is the first commercial aircraft assembled at that site and there was just no real muss or fuss about it.

I suspect the Charleston site not only is going to reduce risk for Boeing over the next few years when it comes to the 787 but I also think that this effort is going to cause Boeing to look at other areas for manufacturing when it comes to other aircraft.

Seattle will remain Boeing Central for aircraft manufacturing but I think we just witnessed an excellent argument for Boeing not scaling production higher and higher for an aircraft in Seattle but to decentralize assembly of aircraft to other areas when large quantities are demanded for an airframe.

I really don’t think Boeing took nearly as much of a victory lap over their Charleston achievement that they could have.

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Emirates wants an updated 777 offered. . . NOW

May 14, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Emirates CEO Tim Clark has decided to beat the drum of wanting a new, upgraded and revised 777 and he would like Boeing to announce it pronto.  Emirates has a very large fleet of 777 aircraft and likes to retire its aircraft from the fleet after about 12 years.  They also have the A350-1000 on order (20 orders) and have behaved very cool towards Airbus over that aircraft’s delays and its inability to be a real game changer against the 777.

Boeing probably has done a fair bit of definition for the 777-8X/9X aircraft and its likely they’ve held substantial conversations with customers to get a better feel for what should be offered.  I’m not entirely sure that what is offered is going to make Tim Clark happy as he generally wants more, More, MORE range in an aircraft.  Sadly, most airlines don’t need ultra-long range capability nearly as much as they want excellent fuel efficiency and very low seat mile costs.

The 777-8X is likely to be somewhat satisfying to Emirates but I suspect the -9X won’t be quite what they want.  Remember that Emirates wanted to see a 747-8i that had a few hundred more nautical miles range and Boeing wouldn’t give that to them.

It’s a tough position to be in at Boeing.  Emirates could act as a launch customer for a very successful upgrade of the 777.  On the other hand, Emirates will be the toughest critic possible of the aircraft all through development.

Boeing has quite a handful of things going on right now, too.  The 787 program is getting better and better but still requires quite a bit of care and feeding in order to develop the 787-9 and 787-10 over the next few years.  The 737-MAX program will keep a large portion of engineers busy for the next 5 to 6 years and that leaves very little engineering capability left over for the 777 development.

I think we’ll see some sort of firm definition get announced early next year and I think that an authorization to offer the aircraft will only come after Boeing sees customers signal their willingness (and even eagerness) to buy the aircraft from around the world and not just from the Middle East.  That is going to take a while.

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737MAX is getting real

April 11, 2012 on 9:02 pm | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Boeing has revealed more details on its definition for the 737MAX now and one significant revelation is the decision to add 8 inches to the nose gear.  This was the tough choice engineering wise.

A new pylon and strut for engines will be used in the style of the 787 and the rear tail cone will be extended and the area above the elevator thickened to improve aerodynamics.  Electronic bleed air will be added to improve cabin pressurization (which is much like how the A350 will use bleed air)and better means more efficient fuel burn.

Airbus boxed Boeing into this aircraft by introducing the A320NEO.  I firmly believe that Boeing was leaning towards a new aircraft but also needed time and space to get where it needed to be with that aircraft.  Airbus’ introduction of the NEO made it much more imperative to deliver more efficiency now rather than a decade later.

But with the decision made, I also have to credit Boeing for appearing to have decided to go all in.  They are working very, very hard to bring as much advantage as possible to the single aisle wars with Airbus.

Some perceive that Boeing has been slow to release details and I understand that perception but the truth is that American Airlines’ order last summer forced their hand into a premature announcement.  Had they not had to make that announcement, these new details would seem very much on time.

Most believe that the status quo between the two manufacturers will be maintained.  It is thought that Boeing will have a slight advantage that, according to many, will remain about 2% better than Airbus.

I have a feeling that Boeing might be aiming higher.  I don’t think the decisions they are now announcing about this aircraft reflect a company that is struggling to maintain the status quo in the marketplace.  They appear to be working very hard to make every gain possible against their competitors to bring even more to the table.

Why do I think so?  Because these changes add more risk to their ability to deliver this aircraft in 2017.   If there is one thing Boeing knows, it’s that they cannot afford to damage their credibility with airlines further with a late arrival of the 737MAX.  This is not an all new aircraft with all new materials and airlines will expect it on time or early.

This won’t be revealed a la One Big Announcement John Leahy Style.  Boeing will simply add more and more substantiation to their claims as they continue discussions with airlines.  At the end of the day, most airlines prefer to see results over having a grand announcement.

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Airbus and Boeing need to sell

March 8, 2012 on 4:40 pm | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

A number of analysts have noted that the real goal for Airbus this next year is to sell production slots that are open for current A320 aircraft up to and including EIS for the A320NEO aircraft.  Both Boeing and Airbus need to find ways to preserve value on existing aircraft lines until their new generation aircraft enter into service as well.

It’s a delicate line they each walk.  You want to satisfy airlines with new aircraft but some of those who buy aircraft are lessors and you don’t want to anger them by depreciating their assets they already hold.  And a market glut of aircraft can result in depreciating demand for your new generation aircraft because the capital costs for current generation aircraft can become low enough to make sense for airlines to buy and use.

A good example of that last part is Delta buying more and more MD-90 aircraft.  The capital costs are low compared to current Boeing aircraft and the airliner provides close to current Boeing efficiencies. 

Both manufacturers know that their order books are soft.  Both know that some who have ordered both current and next generation aircraft aren’t necessarily going to be around to take delivery on those aircraft 5 years from now.  One great example is Lion Airways order from Boeing.   The dirty secret about that order is that Lion isn’t an airline with significant risk both in operations and financially. 

Airbus need to work hard getting their current production sold until their aircraft are in place but without depreciating values and without massive discounts to encourage orders.  It’s a tall order and a difficult challenge for both manufacturers.

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Where is the Dreamliner?

February 24, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

It’s 2012 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has delivered but only 3 aircraft so far.  There are tens of aircraft in Seattle and San Antonio requiring rework and change incorporation and the assembly line in South Carolina hasn’t cranked up yet either. 

By all reports, the 787 is exactly what airlines expected.  Note that I said “airlines” and not “airline passengers”.  For those of you that expected a transformational experience with the 787:  surprise.  This airliner was built for airlines, not you.  It was sold on its exceptional features for passengers, yes.  However, at the end of the day, it’s really a highly economical airliner for airlines.  In other words:  seat pitch isn’t going to change and the bigger windows, higher humidity and lower  cabin pressure don’t really add up to a shocking experience.  It’s better, no doubt.  However, I’ll bet that most don’t really notice a big difference except, perhaps, for the windows.

So, we’ve got a great airliner that should be transformational for airlines and there is just one problem:  Nobody has really gotten their 787s yet.  Airlines seem to have gone into a funk and accept that they’ll get theirs when they get theirs.  I’m not suggesting they have a choice at this point but I do wonder at why Boeing isn’t bearing brunt of at least a little more ire at the delays. 

My prediction:  Boeing will deliver no more than about 35 of these airliners by the end of the year.   There are still too many signs of Boeing not quite “getting it” when it comes to the need to push these airliners out the door.

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777-8X/9X: Here we go

January 16, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development, Airline Fleets | No Comments

Aspire Aviation has revealed that Boeing has issued an RFP to GE and Rolls-Royce (with speculation that Pratt & Whitney got included) for a next generation engine for the 777-8X/9X development.  The target appears to be about 100,000lbs of thrust (and I’m sure Boeing would like to hear about a growth path to that as well.)

With the combination of new technologies for the fuselage, composite wings that are likely a bit larger and a lower fuel consumption, these new aircraft would definitely be A350 beaters in every category.  The current 777 lineup performs well against the performance definitions for the A350-900 and based on comments from A350-1000 customers, the 777-300ER probably isn’t equaled on long haul routes. 

A revised 777 that upgrades the -200LR with more seats and as much range, capacity and cargo capacity would clearly be of interest to many airlines.  A -300ER that also increases its capacity with equal or better range would also be of great interest to many.  Boeing has rightly identified that its the -300ER that is likely the sweet spot in size (or a little larger) for most airlines requiring a high capacity/long range airliners for routes.

The A380 will be around for a long time.  It won’t be a big seller over the next decade and will only ever be a success if there is enough growth on long haul trunk routes to require that aircraft.  The 747-8i remains an interim solution from Boeing and it still hasn’t garnered much interest from airines.  In fact, many airlines have downsized from the 747-400 in favor of the 777-300ER.

Trunk routes will remain but there will be fewer of real importance and requiring a VLA.  The 787, A350 and 777 all permit airlines to fly more point to point routes and earn profits.  Ultra long haul flights are likely to remain more in the style of “long and thin” than “long and fat”.  After all, just how many people are likely to fly from Houston to Auckland, New Zealand even with network feed?  Answer:  Not enough to require a 777 or 747 for quite some time.

I do think Boeing has the right idea in offering a revised 777 instead of an all new design in this category.  The 777 still incorporates some fairly cutting edge technology and with a revised composite wing alone could probably continue as a category winner.

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The A340

November 15, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development, Airline Fleets, Airline History | 2 Comments

Lufthansa Airbus A340-600(Flickr)

I got asked what I thought of the A340 last week by a reader of FlyingColors and decided to give some thought to that subject and write a post.

The truth is, the A340 was probably the first Airbus aircraft that I really liked visually.   I liked the slender appearance of the widebody fuselage and I liked the four engines and how they were hung on the wing in a proportion that just seemed a bit sexier than other 4 engine aircraft. 

I liked Airbus’ approach to the A340/A330, too.  I’ve always been fond of the parts bin approach to creating value for a customer and the A330/A340 development was certainly that. 

A fuselage that got borrowed from its first twin-aisle aircraft and CFM engines that were derived from the A320 aircraft.  Need a medium range hauler?  Use our A330.   Need a long range widebody?  Try our A340.   Going trans-Atlantic?  Use our A330 and if you’ve got trans-Pacific routes, we have this lovely 4 engine aircraft for you. 

And you got to have pilots that could fly both. 

It was a beautiful approach and a real answer to what was needed at the time.   It was way better than McDonnell Douglas’s offering in the MD-11 and Boeing really didn’t have an aircraft that even fit the needs at all. 

ETOPS was changing the game at the same time, however.  So was engine development.

The MD-11 was a bit flawed in that it really needed a truly new wing and better engines to achieve its mission.  But the ever frugal derivative player, McDonnell Douglas, played things just a bit too frugal.

The 747 was simply a different class of aircraft.  The 767 was too small and too short ranged to fit the gap.

Airbus did a great job with those aircraft in offering a sweet spot solution for both capacity and range and then made a strong business case for both of them by making them as common as possible.  You cannot blame any airline who went that route.  It was, in the context of the times, the perfect solution.

What we didn’t really count on was engine manufacturers being willing to truly make game changer engines and ETOPS going far past anything anyone could envision.  The 777 was born and it was an even bigger game changer.  First an aircraft that solved the A330 problem just a little bit better.  Not fantastically better but it offered just a touch more capacity and bit more cargo capacity and it did it with engines that were more revolution than evolution.

The A330 has survived because of its improved derivatives and any airline using them makes great money.

The A340 got hampered by a few things.  It needed a bit better wing  and better engines (and finally got both in the A340-500/600).  The CFM engines were a great choice going in but the Rolls Royce Trents were the answer to a question that got asked a bit too late.

Airbus bet on 4 engines being preferred for long haul, trans-oceanic routes and given the dominance of the 747 in that market, it wasn’t a bad bet.   Their mistake was in underestimating Boeing’s ability to look forward.  Boeing saw the possibilities in ETOPS and extra high by-pass engines that were more reliable than anyone could have conceived of a generation earlier.  And it should have given its customer base at the time.

Airbus was hampered by a bit of McD disease and by multi-government ownership at the time.  It didn’t have enough capital to go “all in” on designs and knew it had to make its business case on flexibility which meant derivatives.  In fact, it often only got capital for new investment if that investment benefitted its owners in the form of jobs programs for their citizens.

While thinking about this post, it occured to me that Airbus even produced a 747-SP.  The A340-500 derivative.  It could fly fantastic distances but without enough passengers to make it cost effective.   Then the 777-200LR came along and was capable of doing *that* mission better and cheaper.

The 777-200ER and 777-300ER killed the A340 in all forms (And EADS CFO just admitted it in the press).  It could haul more passengers and cargo for the same or longer distances for less money.  It was that simple.  Boeing made the business case on trip costs and won. 

Even if hindsight is 20/20, you can’t say that Airbus made a mistake with the A340.  The A340 killed the MD-11 and exposed the weaknesses of owning 747s.  It did its job very well but it arrived just a little bit too late to enjoy its success for very long.  Timing is everything.

I would criticize Airbus for the A380.  Yes, it has made a few airlines some good money.  It also ignores the model(s) for long haul travel over the broad spectrum in favor of trunk routes.  It will never enjoy the numbers or prevalence of the 747.  On the other hand, neither will the 747-8i. 

I’m not sure the A350 is the answer either.  I don’t think it fits long, thin routes as well as the 787 and its planned derivatives.  I don’t think it fits the long, large capacity routes quite as well as the 777 either.  Its smallest derivative is an A330 replacement at best and I question whether or not it will ever get built.  Its largest derivative so far doesn’t respond to the 777-300 as a game changer either.  They are free to prove me wrong.

It’s not that I think the A350 won’t sell.  It will.  But I think it’s destined to be a player among a fairly small core group of airlines.  Much as the A380 is and will be.  Boeing took a page from the Airbus playbook and built the 787 to fit a nice, broad piece of medium and long haul routes and positioned itself to answer the largest A350 with a next gen 777 or next gen new build large capacity, widebody aircraft.

Boeing one ups Airbus over the next 20 years with its product line up and does it in a way that has the gaps covered in distance, capacity and service. 

With all of that said, I still think the A340 is one hell of an elegant and pretty airliner.  It lends itself to the great airliner liveries of the world.  Just look at these:

(All images from Flickr under their Creative Commons License)

B-HXJ

 

Etihad

EC-GLE "Concepción Arenal"

G-VGAS

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The 787 and, no, I’m not dead.

September 27, 2011 on 1:25 pm | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

First, my apologies for going dark for such a long time.  My day job became suddenly very busy and required my full attention.

And now to take note that the 787 has been delivered to ANA and it is winging its way to Japan as I write this.  It’s a good moment for the 787 and Boeing and I’m glad to see this delivery take place.  It’s long overdue and all parties suffered a great deal of pain getting to this point. 

But even though it is a moment of celebration, I think it’s important to remember a few things going forward.

First, this is the first delivery and a better indicator of the state of the program will be how many more are delivered by the end of the year.  If this turns out to be a small handful, I think we’re looking at a program with production problems still.  (The latest indicator about this was Boeing’s last production halt to allow work to catch up just a few months ago.)  If Boeing manages to deliver more aircraft than expectations and I would have to say that this would need to be 12 or more deliveries, we might be able to relax and feel more confident that Boeing has the production issues well managed.

Second, this is a great aircraft but the one many more airlines want is the 787-9 and quite a few want to see what a 787-10 will look like.  The 787-9 isn’t due for another 2 years and it is dependent upon Boeing having its production ramped up completely.  My fear on the 787-10 is that Boeing will compromise the design into a derivative that is unsatisfying for customers.  My prime concern is that they’ll accept a range that doesn’t completely allow customers to use it in 777-200LR missions and I think airlines want that capability.  There will be more McBoeing cracks if the -10 ends up being that kind of disappointment.

Finally, there is the question of “what’s next?” for 787 technologies.  Boeing has spent a massive amount of money developing this aircraft and it not only has amazing promise, it’s already realized amazing gains.   Now they own a tremendous body of knowledge and . . . there is no other program to apply these to.   There is no replacement for the 737 being worked on and that is deferred for probably 10 years or more at this point.  There is no announced program for enhancing or replacing the 777 and there likely won’t be for some time to come. 

If you don’t use such knowledge, it creeps away from you.  At this point, there could be a 5 or 8 year gap between applying these technologies and given how technology rapidly evolves today, I think that’s a shame.  I continue to believe that the argument for a 737 re engine was justified by low capital costs alone and didn’t adequately consider just how devestating a full new aircraft would be to Airbus.   To not want to do that aircraft because you had not fully figured out how to scale production to 60 aircraft a month is . . . suspcicious.  I want to throw the McBoeing label out there when I consider this.

I know one thing . . . a 737 re-engine would have never gained traction with Alan Mullaly at the helm.

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The 777 and its future

September 14, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Now that Boeing is on the home stretch in defining what it will do to provide the 737 MAX line, we should expect to see some movement towards improving the existing 777 line.  This will start to take place at Boeing outside our view but let’s take a look at the drivers.

First, engines are going to be a factor.  The GE90 is relatively new but let’s not forget that it fits in between 1st generation high bypass engines and the latest high bypass engines.  There is already talk that Boeing wants the GENx engine uprated from 100K to 110K thrust.  That’s a smart sweet spot and it will gain a percentage point or two in fuel efficiency but that only works if other things are done.

Weight reduction while maintaining seat and load capacity will be a driver.  I think we’ll see all parts of the aircraft examined for weight savings and through use of carbon fibre technologies.  One of the obvious places, in my opinion, is in creating a new wing.  A new wing capable of carrying more load more efficienty and made from newer, lighter technologies helps a lot here. 

The fuselage will likely remain the same in construction.  However, I think we may well see stretches occur.  I think we’ll see a slight stretch to the 777-300ER and a marginally bigger stretch to the 777-200LR.  The gap between the two will narrow slightly but both will carry more passengers.  I think the -300 will be limited in some respects by the fact that it is already a very long aircraft and they won’t want to make it much longer for fear that it will won’t fit within airline operations at many airports. 

Whatever Airbus does to define the A350-1000 will be the driver for what Boeing chooses to do with the 777.  However, Boeing has to time their upgrades to be available at roughly the same time that the A350-1000 will enter into service.  There could be an entry into service as much as 1.5 years later but not much past that.  That will limit, in some respects, the kinds of re-engineering Boeing can afford to do on the 777. 

When do we hear about it?  Not before fall 2012, I think.  Perhaps even later than that.  Right now, Boeing will likely conduct internal trade studies in all areas of the aircraft and try to be ready to pick a direction on or about the time we really know the definition of the A350-1000.

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September 11

September 11, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Aircraft Development, Airline News, Airports, security | 1 Comment

There are quite a few blog posts showing up in the past few days memorializing or offering recollections on what September 11, 2001 was like for them.  I frequently struggle on anniversaries like this because I find myself out of sync with many others and with respect to this event in particular.

Make no mistake, it was a very bad day and I felt the trauma as much as anyone.  However, I tend to want to see us move on and do better as opposed to continue to only reflect back on what happened.  That said, I do think some reflection and observation on this particular anniversary is, perhaps, in order.

My day was absolutely normal when it started.  I woke up cranky as I often do, made coffee and drove to work.  I was just a few minutes later to work than perhaps normal but for no other reason than I was tired.

It was my custom to listen to the NPR news broadcast in the mornings (and still is) and I was doing so as I drove into the parking lot of my company around 8:30 or so in the morning.  As I did so, the news broadcaster, Carl Kassell, interrupted his news reading, hesitated and then said that there was a fresh news report that a small aircraft had hit the World Trade Center.

I was a bit surprised to hear that but immediately concluded that New York must be experiencing very low cloud cover and/or fog and someone must have finally done something badly wrong in that airspace. 

But it didn’t stop me at all.  I went into my office, closed my door and began reading emails and doing work.  I generally don’t like to talk in the earliest part of my mornings and my staff was accustomed to me doing those things behind a closed door.  Sometime after 9am, one of my staff opened my door and asked if I did not know that the world was on fire. (or words to that effect.)

I was surprised at her distress, started asking questions and got news going on my computer.  It took just a couple of minutes to learn that one hijacked aircraft had gone into the World Trade Center, not a small civil aircraft and that other aircraft were known to be hjacked as well. 

Then we learned of the second aircraft and things just seemed to get blurry for a while.  Our news feed slowed to a crawl because the internet was overwhelmed.  We were able to get a portable TV going and got some news from that.  I went to my car a couple of times to listen to the radio as well. 

After a couple of hours, there was news that parents were pulling their kids from school and I announced that those who wanted to leave and do the same, could.  I also offered that it might be best for us to stay where we were for a while longer until we knew that someone had a handle on something.  We stayed for a bit longer but it became clear that no work would get done and I let everyone go home.

I went home as well. 

I worked near Addison Airport in the Dallas area.  I lived under one of the normal approach paths for Love Field and DFW airports.  It was immediately striking just how quiet things grew both in the air and on the streets.  Like most of everyone, I watched the news, talked to some family on the phone and felt punched by the events most of all.

I made some calls to business friends in the New York City area to check on them and didn’t reach many but some were answering.  One friend, a jewelry manufacturer, holed up in his facility in lower Manhattan and stood guard over his business for days.  His wife witnessed a man get beaten in their Queens neighborhood for being nothing other than of Middle Eastern descent. 

In the evening, I started to get calls and emails from friends around the world asking if I was OK.   They knew me to be a frequent traveler and from their vantage point, it would be perfectly logical for me to be in New York or Boston or Washington, D.C. 

I sat on my back patio for a good part of the evening and just marveled at how quiet it was.  It was still like an early sunday morning.  No sound of cars, people or airplanes.   When my telephone rang, it sounded abnormally loud every time.

I was as shocked as anyone and probably a bit more upset than some given what I knew of the airline industry.  I deduced what had happened very quickly and never learned anything that truly contradicted my guess that hijackers had taken control of airplanes and most passengers had cooperated in the idea that doing so would get the airplane on the ground.  But the hijackers had broken the model and done the unthinkable. 

I was bitterly proud that those on UA 93 had learned what was going on and had fought back.  When I heard that, I knew that never again would passengers be passive in such circumstances.  I haven’t been proven wrong in 10 years either.

I’m genuinely sorry for those who suffered direct losses that day.  I’m also fairly bitter about where we are 10 years later.

It upsets me that we haven’t raised a bolder building in the World Trade Center’s place yet.  If it had been up to me, we would have finished that long ago. 

I am very disappointed at the losses of personal freedom in the last 10 years.  I’m extremely upset that people went along with it so passively and I’m very upset that Congress continues to cower in political fear rather than eliminate those losses.  I think the Patriot Act was one of the worst things ever done in terms of legislation.

I hate that our airline transportation security is still theater rather than real.  Consider that in 10 years, the TSA hasn’t once thwarted a terrorist threat.  But they have allowed numerous breaches in that time and under circumstances that leave me wondering if anyone is actually doing their job.

It infuriates me that the TSA is more of a problem for us all than a solution.  That the TSA is a source of theft and insult rather than a professional corps of security people doing their job well.  It angers me that the solution to security 10 years later is to invade their bodies with scanners or sexually asssault them with pat downs.  The United States should be a better place than that.

It’s been a horrific decade for the airline industry.  September 11 was the start and the heavy hits have kept coming ever since.  Consider that American Airlines has lost more than $1billion a year in the last 10 years.  Several major airlines have had to declare bankruptcy.  Many others had to merge or die. 

And every time they think they’ve got  a handle on things, another punch comes. 

There have been other disappointments.  The only truly new mainline airplane to be built and delivered in the last 10 years has been the Airbus A380.  In the 1960s, we saw tens of new ones designed and built.  What’s worse, while we’ll see 2 more in the next 10 years, that’s about it.   What happened to innovation in building new airliners?

It’s been a bad 10 years for the United States.  I would like to suggest that we consider just how much we’ve all taken and how we all are still standing today.  I would like to see the next 10 years in the United States to be a decade to rebuilding, growth and facing up to our problems and challenges. 

I would like to have some pride in my government.  It’s been too long now. 

I would like to see my fellow citizens be just a bit less selfish, a bit less political and a bit more focused on cooperating with each and achieving things.  It’s time to get back to achieving success and overcoming challenges presented to us.  It’s time to be leaders again rather than bitter isolationists.  It’s time to wake up and get back to competing. 

It is definitely time to find new leaders.  I want to see people who understand what it means to represent the whole rather than the special interest.  I want to see leaders who work hard, play hard and set sterling examples of looking forward to the future.  I want people who ask us to stretch rather than wait passively. 

Today should be a day to reflect not only on our losses but on how we need to get going with our lives and our country and do much, much better.

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The 787 pauses again.

July 19, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Boeing is going to pause its 787 production line in Seattle for 1 month . . . again.  Swirling theories have it that its necessary for parts to catch up and change incorporation to take place.   This line hold takes place for the first time this year but after 4 such holds in 2010.

One wonders how Boeing will increase production to 2.5 aircraft per month this summer and increase it up to 10 in 2013 given the holds that continue to happen.  In addition, if various needed assembly pieces are experiencing shortages, how does Boeing supply its soon to be open South Carolina production line for the 787?

And why do we care?  Because for no other reason than the 787 really is a test of new production supply chains and the failure of those supply chains may well call into question the rather stunning production rates being talked about for both current Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 lines as well as future new aircraft. 

Typically, supply chains can keep up once the real demand is known.  I don’t doubt that the supply chain will eventually find its rhythm.  However, it could still take a few years for that to happen and only after Boeing makes further changes to its supplier structure.  In the meantime, failure to deliver 787s impacts Boeing’s bottom line and its ability to move on to other new aircraft.

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Watch Airbus to see what Boeing does

June 6, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Airbus has committed itself to the A320NEO series recently and Boeing continues to decide to not decide on what it will do with the 737.  All the while hinting at a new aircraft development for a 737 replacement to enter into service around 2019/2020.   Except that Boeing has also hinted from time to time that a re-engine might be in order while also saying that customers don’t want a re-engine. 

In addition, Airbus will be releasing its configuration for the A350-1000 aka 777 killer in the next few weeks.  Boeing doesn’t believe it quite meets the mark without a new wing and Airbus has said nothing about a new wing.  Right now, on paper, the 777-300ER still beats the A350-1000.  Unless Airbus releases a configuration that causes people to pause and gasp, Boeing will most likely not feel too threatened by Airbus for the time being.

And that’s why I say watch Airbus to see what Boeing does.   Boeing knows it can probably win against Airbus with a 737 replacement in the time frame it is talking about while managing to keep customers interested in the current 737 through incremental improvements that should keep the two aircraft competitive.  I’ve felt that Boeing wants to know what Airbus’ move is on the A350-1000 so it knows where to commit its resources.  If the configuration and definition for the A350-1000 moves it into competitive territory with the 777, Boeing knows it needs to get to work on improving the 777 (an exceptional moneymaker for Boeing presently) in order to not lose those customers for the next 2 decades. 

Boeing likely believes it can cover the 777-200ER territory with a 787-10 (and perhaps an incremental improvement to the -10 as an ER model later).  This leaves it free to preserve the 777-300 in its current configuration or find improvements to the existing design or even design a new aircraft family to fit above 787-10 and finish alongside the 747-8i. 

But what Boeing doesn’t want to do is commit to launching 2 new airplane programs simultaneously.  Boeing already knows what will likely happen if it does that.   

With all of that into consideration, I think that once we know the firm definition for the A350-1000, Boeing will know how to sequence its next airplane programs.  It will be either a 737RS first with a 777 replacement kicked off 3 to 4 years later or a 777 replacement first with a 737 re-engine done simulataneously and a 737 replacement coming 10 to 12 years after the re-engine. 

I strongly believe that Boeing wants to do the former sequence (737 replacement / 777 replacement) because it puts Airbus into a corner.  With this strategy, Boeing probably has an all new line of aircraft using the latest technology spanning from 150 seats to 450 seats while Airbus has the A320NEO and A350 series but with a gap between the A320NEO and A350 being filled by what will be quite the aging aircraft:  the A330.   In fact, there already is a gap, although minor, between the A320 series and the A330 series.  And make no mistake:  The A330 will begin to die in another 2 years or so as a result of the A350 and 787 developments. 

My prediction?  I think Airbus will announce nothing that threatens Boeing’s competitiveness in the 777 models.  Sometime late in the fall or early in the winter while riding on an uptick with the deliveries of the 787 and 747-8i to customers, Boeing will announce a 737 replacement program with a big airline order.  Sometime around 2017 or 2018, we’ll see Boeing announce a replacement for the 777 sized  above the 787-10 and right up alongside the 747-8i.

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