There may no longer be a split between Airbus and Boeing about the need to re-engine the world’s single-aisle fleets after American Airlines signed a combined commitment for 460 A320s, A320NEOs and 737NGs and re-engined 737s.
But there is still a split between the big two airframe makers about the maturity of technologies needed to make a successful replacement for today’s A320 and 737NG families.
Boeing remains positive that technology is ripe for its New Small Airplane project, even if that effort’s debut has been pushed back from 2019-2020 to probably no earlier than 2025.
Airbus is skeptical that the industry’s technology base is mature enough to make the leap to a successor for the A320 family.
Technology aside, the both agree that aviation’s supply chain isn’t ready to support an all-new airplane.
Boeing has had two teams studying the 737. One has considered how to make the New Small Airplane as its successor. That effort continues.
The other worked on re-engining the 737NG family, which is now solely powered by the CFM International CFM56-7B. CFM will be the sole power plant supplier for the new engine 737, as well, with the LEAP-X.
“The technology is there,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Jim Albaugh said today at a joint news conference in Fort Worth with American Airlines Chairman and CEO Gerard Arpey and Airbus CEO Tom Enders. “But there is the issue of the production system, how quickly you can ramp up and how efficiently you can go to 40, 50, 60 airplanes a month. Quite frankly, we did not have those answers.”
Boeing is committed to producing 42 737s per month in the first half of 2014. But that is only part of a bigger effort that will see a 40% production increase across all of its product lines by the end of 2013.
Enders also cited concerns about production ramp-ups. He noted that Airbus is committed to 42 aircraft per month in 2012 and is considering a bump of another two aircraft per month later. But he emphasized that it has not decided that issue.
As for whether technologies exist for the step-change needed for a successor to the A320, Enders stayed true to what Airbus has been saying for years. “We’re working on a new aircraft but [technologies] are not maturing fast enough” to do it yet, he says.
In fact, Airbus’ skepticism about the maturity of manufacturing large composite fuselage structures has already been expressed in the way it has designed the A350. It opted for composite panels attached to a traditional allow airframe rather than the large single-piece composite fuselage assemblies that Boeing pioneered for the 787’s fuselage.
Privately, Boeing engineers say Airbus took the more conservative approach because the Europeans are simply not as advanced as Americans in composite structures.
Albaugh repeated the word “composites” several times during the AA press conference as he referred to the technology base that Boeing finds attractive for the NSA. He did not reference the aluminum alloys that Alcoa has been trumpeting in recent months as it fights back against the gains that composites have made in the industry since Boeing launched the 787.
Boeing produces the aluminum alloy 737s at its Renton factory south of Seattle, using fuselages built nose-to-tail by Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita. Spirit is committed to the 42 aircraft/month schedule Boeing is pursuing.
Boeing builds the rest of the 737 airframe in Renton. 737 General Manager and Boeing Vice President Beverly Wyse says Renton has factory space to support 60 aircraft per month. Still to come is how Boeing plans to assemble the new engine 737s. It now sends all 737 models (except the P-8A) down one of two commercial final assembly lines, regardless of their fuselage size. But that is because they all have the same engines, landing gear and systems. It’s the fuselage length that is the big discriminator between, say, a -700 and -900ER.
One question yet to be answered is how Boeing will assemble the new engine 737. Presumably it will be on a dedicated line, but where at Renton?
Much of that will depend on the timing of the new airplane’s entry into service, which awaits a formal decision by Boeing’s board to launch the program. Given Boeing’s past insistence that it will not abandon the NG series with the introduction of a new airplane, it’s a safe bet that NGs will be offered for years to come even as the new engine 737 enters the market.
However, its own factory space and tooling requirements are far from the major portion of Boeing’s rate build-up equation. The larger issue is how much labor and infrastructure capacity the airplane maker’s suppliers have, given that most of them serve other civil and military accounts.
On the engine side of the equation, Boeing has the assurance that CFM can keep up given that it has committed to building the LEAP-X. CFM’s General Electric and Snecma partners build-up engines both in France and the U.S. The bulk of Boeing’s orders naturally flow from the U.S. side of the Atlantic Ocean, specifically from the main GE Aviation factory in Evendale, Ohio, but with some additional production from Durham, N.C. GE sources material from multiple locations.
There’s also an unanswered question about the new engine 737 relating to what other technologies might find their way onto the airframe.
Asked about that, a Boeing official replied cautiously: “We will be looking at that in the coming months. No matter what we do, the 737 will always improve.”