Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Another 787 delay and cigar tubes

It has just been announced that the first deliveries of the Boeing 787 plane will occur in the third quarter of this year, an extra delay of at least seven months from the last announced date. This brings the delay in first deliveries to well over three years (see timeline), and is reducing the advantage they had over Airbus's competitor, the A350, which is now due for delivery to customers sometime after the middle of 2013.

Add to this the strong rumours that Boeing has been selling the planes at under cost price, and you can see that the company has some major problems. The missteps the company has made will be studied for many years and will undoubtedly fuel many engineering and business PhD theses.

Airbus is still smarting with the problems that it had with the A380 launch a few years ago; delivery delays are still propagating downwards, and they have only recently got the planes' production in order. Boeing's problems with the 787 are far worse and varied in cause, the latest being an electrical fire that occurred just before Christmas, necessitating a redesign of some of the electrical subsystems.

The downside of these problems is that I doubt that either Airbus or Boeing will want to start another brand-new passenger plane development once the A350/787 are in service; the development process is just too expensive. Instead, we will see existing planes evolving, in the way Boeing has kept the 747 going for over 40 years Just this week Airbus have launched the A320neo project to update their popular A320 design with new engines and other minor alterations. There were strong rumours that they would announce the development of a replacement for the A320, but that has now been kicked into the long grass.

Boeing in particular are keen to show pictures and videos of futuristic designs such as the Blended Wing Body (BWB). Unfortunately it looks as though such designs do not promise enough of an advantage over our current cigar tube-fuselages to make them worth developing for passenger use alone. These two massive companies have well and truly had their fingers burnt.

Boeing and Airbus will only launch a new plane development in the next fifteen years if a military requirement appears, or if other aerospace firms start threatening their markets. Several companies are producing competitive passenger planes; the Russians have just launched the Sukhoi Superjet 100, the Chinese are developing the COMAC C919 and Bombardier have the C-Series. All of these new planes, however, are relatively small when compared to the 787 or A350, yet alone the 747 or A380.

It took Airbus from 1967 to 1972 to build the A300, and another few decades to be in a position to build the A380. Planes have become ever more complex, especially with the modern In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems, and the barrier to entry in the market are ever steeper.

We will be flying in our cigar tubes for a few decades yet.

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