June 18, 2012
There is little doubt last year's Paris air show was a love-fest for Airbus and its A320NEO. Now Boeing has launched the rival 737 MAX, but can the U.S. aircraft maker dominate this year's Farnborough International Airshow to the same extent?
Any attempt to boil down the biennial event—held July 9-15 southwest of London—into a horse race between the Airbus and Boeing single-aisle offering would be to grossly understate the challenges global aerospace and defense representatives will have to address as they gather at the largest industrial meeting of the year. Farnborough 2012 may not mark the first big European air show since Western defense budgets have been in remission, but the uncertainties about lean times that had cast long shadows at earlier shows have become a reality.
Supply chain concerns also will remain paramount. Airbus has already decided to forgo, for now, a ramp-up of output to 44 single-aisle aircraft per month. There are shared concerns across original equipment makers that some suppliers are overstretched in trying to satisfy the increasing demand from Airbus, Boeing and others, including the gradual ramp-up expected to unfold with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. What is more, retrenching financial institutions, particularly in Europe, have left some small suppliers underfinanced. For the big aircraft makers, Farnborough will provide an opportunity to look some of their smaller suppliers in the eye and gauge their ability to keep pace.
But many observers believe that the commercial airliner business, which has been on the upswing, will be the focal point of the show. Boeing, for instance, has several big product decisions in the pipeline and the gathering could provide some clarity as to the direction Seattle plans to take. First up is the fate of the next member of the 787 family, the -10X, and what other upgrades will be made to the 777X toward the end of the decade to keep the product competitive in the face of emerging competition from the Airbus A350-1000, which is due to be fielded in 2017.
For now, though, Boeing will primarily be focused on getting the 787 into customers' hands. This year, few of those deliveries will be as important as the one to Qatar Airways. The airline's outspoken CEO, Akbar Al-Baker, wants his first 787 to be flying at Farnborough ahead of its service entry on the Doha-London route in August. The CEO has roundly criticized Boeing for being run by lawyers (when the 787 was delayed), so the U.S. aircraft maker will be striving to ensure that the twin-widebody is delivered in time to participate.
Nor is Airbus expected to be idle. Having launched its A330 passenger-to-freighter conversion program at the Singapore air show in February, the European aircraft maker is considering using Farnborough to launch another A330 initiative, a 240-ton maximum-takeoff-weight option. It would be the second such upgrade for the twin-widebody, which has been enjoying a large market share in recent years. The first 235-metric-ton version should enter service this year.
Other enhancements being considered by the European manufacturer include more-capable winglets modeled on the so-called Sharklets now flying on A320s. But there is still uncertainty about whether the fuel burn gains are worth the structural changes that would be needed. Instead, Airbus may improve load alleviation through its fly-by-wire flight controls to gain small fuel burn improvements. Also, it is working with engine suppliers Rolls-Royce, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney to eke out slight specific fuel consumption gains.