LATE last year Alan Mulally, boss of Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, thought he was about to land some crucial orders for the stretched 747 that he wanted to launch to compete with Airbus's super-jumbo, the A380. As Airbus, based in Toulouse, raced towards the 50 orders it needed to launch its giant, Mr Mulally was pinning his hopes on a deal with Federal Express to buy freighter versions for its huge cargo airline. When he learned that Fedex was going to buy the all-new Airbus, it was time to face facts.
Nobody wanted the latest stretched 747, just as nobody had wanted an attempt to upgrade the ageing war-horse a few years earlier. A 32-year monopoly as the queen of the skies was coming to an end. For the Seattle company, which had already seen Airbus's share of the civil-jet market rise from a fifth to half, losing roughly 50 to nil on the orders score was too much to bear. Boeing wisely decided to withdraw from the contest, while it thought up a different one.
That is the real story behind the fanfare at the end of March, when Boeing announced that it was switching its attention from a super-jumbo to an entirely new aircraft: a long-range jetliner, dubbed the “sonic cruiser” because it would fly at just below the speed of sound, cutting an hour off transatlantic flights and saving three hours over the Pacific. This may well be what the market wants: even Airbus agrees it might have potential. “We also have design studies for aircraft like that,” says Rainer Hertrich, co-chief executive of Airbus's parent company, EADS. “If the market likes it, we'll see how we react.” That is probably bombast, as Airbus would struggle to launch a second all-new aircraft, if Boeing is in the lead, just as Boeing would struggle to make money against the Airbus super-jumbo, a huge punt made possible only by soft government loans.
Boeing is still far from committed to launching its faster aircraft, however: it is merely talking it up to attract interest among the travelling public and airlines. This is exactly what Airbus did for several years before winning enough orders to launch the A380. All the guff about the A380's on-board gyms, casinos and saunas bears little relation to airline reality. Most launch customers are determined to pack in as many seats as possible, to maximise revenues. All the same, Airbus has taught Boeing that hype is now a key part of launching aircraft.
In the early 1990s, Boeing and Airbus considered a joint venture to build super-jumbos. But their talks came to nothing, and Airbus executives suspected that it was all a ploy by Boeing to delay Airbus's own super-jumbo. The two sides emerged from their brief liaison with starkly different views of the potential demand. Boeing estimated that, over 20 years, there was a market for only about 700 aircraft of the size of the 747 or bigger. Airbus, on the other hand, reckoned there was demand for 1,550 aircraft, worth $345 billion. After many false starts, Airbus eventually began marketing its aircraft a year ago. By last autumn, it had landed some big orders, notably from Singapore Airlines. In December, Airbus launched the programme, which now has 62 orders and 40 options from eight carriers. The first A380, destined for Singapore, should fly in late 2006. Until then, Airbus is likely to face a dearth of new orders, while airlines weigh up whether they have to follow the early customers, but without the steep discounts those first-movers enjoyed.
When it was trying to persuade airlines not to buy the Airbus super-jumbo, Boeing argued that the airline market is fragmenting, with more growth coming from direct flights between cities large and small, rather than from flights between big hub airports. There is evidence to support this: traffic growth at most hubs (with some exceptions, such as Paris Charles de Gaulle) is much slower than overall growth of 8% a year worldwide (see chart). Analysts such as John Lindquist of Boston Consulting Group, are convinced that Boeing is right about fragmentation, which is making it easier to open new routes as aviation markets liberalise.
Boeing's new view is that more and more business passengers (who contribute most to airline profits) will opt for a fast, long-range aircraft that flies direct to their final destination, saving them a change at a hub. Boeing expects the Pacific market to fragment, rather as the Atlantic routes have done over the past 20 years. Airbus accepts much of this argument, which is why it launched its A340 long-haul aircraft to compete against Boeing's 777. But Airbus still believes that the sheer growth of traffic between a dozen or so global hubs, at which landing slots are limited, will force airlines to choose the A380 over the 747.
Moreover, Boeing's sonic cruiser has a big hurdle to clear: fuel efficiency. Although many American airlines reacted enthusiastically to the planned Boeing jetliner, they will need to be convinced that it can fly at just under the speed of sound without consuming too much fuel. Today's jets fly more slowly than their predecessors did before the 1973 OPEC oil-price rise, to save fuel. Boeing is confident it can keep the fuel consumption within affordable limits, given the premium that passengers will pay for speed.
If Boeing gets enough support to proceed with the sonic cruiser, it will have a niche product cornering the fast end of the market, while Airbus has another at the bulk end with the A380. And, as Oz Shy, an Israeli academic and author of a new book on network economics points out, both niches are appropriate markets to be occupied by only a single company. Both manufacturers have realised this. When Airbus moved to stake out the super-jumbo niche, the old Boeing would have plodded on with its rival stretched 747. But the new, profit-minded Boeing is happy to let Airbus take a chance, while it seeks another niche.
In any case, the real action may be elsewhere. Despite some glee in Seattle about having found an “Airbus killer” in the proposed sonic cruiser, this is a sideshow. The fiercest competition will continue to be between the two companies' single-aisle aircraft and the wide-bodied 250-380 seaters such as the Boeing 767 and 777 and the A330 and A340, where the two companies share the market roughly equally.
The duopoly's battle could extend beyond aircraft into aviation services. Boeing appeared to steal a march on Airbus last year when it launched “Connexion by Boeing” to provide broadband communications that would deliver fast Internet access and live TV pictures in aircraft. Continental Airlines is said to be interested in America, and Ireland's Ryanair wants live TV on every seat-back video screen, paid for by the passenger swiping a credit card.
Yet Boeing's “Connexion” has still to land a single customer, while a simpler narrower-band service from a small Seattle company called Tenzing is already being installed by Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines. The Tenzing approach has been to start modestly, then upgrade to real broadband once enough satellites are in place to make that work. According to industry sources, quoted by Flight International, an industry magazine, Airbus is negotiating to buy a big stake in Tenzing and plans to unveil its own Internet strategy at the Paris Air Show in mid-June. Vive la concurrence, even if it does not apply to super-jumbos and sonic cruisers.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition
The Boeing Sonic Cruiser was a concept jet airliner with a delta wing-canard configuration. It was distinguished from conventional airliners by its delta wing and high-subsonic cruising speed of up to Mach 0.98. Boeing first proposed it in 2001, but airlines generally preferred lower operating costs over higher speed. Boeing ended the Sonic Cruiser project in December 2002 and shifted to the slower (Mach 0.85), but more fuel-efficient 7E7 (later named 787 Dreamliner) airliner.
Design and development
The Sonic Cruiser concept developed from studies that began in the 1990s. A variety of concepts were studied, including supersonic aircraft, aircraft with the engines mounted above the wing, aircraft with a single vertical tail, and aircraft with rectangular intakes. The initial sketches released to the public were highly conjectural. A patent drawing filed by Boeing on March 22, 2001 put the baseline aircraft's dimensions at approximately 250 feet (76 m) in length, with a wingspan of 164.9 feet (50.3 m).
The Sonic Cruiser was born from one of numerous outline research and development projects at Boeing with the goal to look at potential designs for a possible new near-sonic or supersonic airliner. The strongest of these initial concepts was named the "Sonic Cruiser" and publicly unveiled on March 29, 2001, shortly after the launch of the A380 by rival Airbus. Boeing had recently withdrawn its proposed 747X derivative from competition with the A380 when not enough airline interest was forthcoming, and instead proposed the Sonic Cruiser as a completely different approach.
Instead of the A380's massive capacity, requiring a hub and spoke model of operation, the Sonic Cruiser was designed for rapid point-to-point connections for 200 to 250 passengers. With a delta wing and canards arrangement, and flying just short of the speed of sound at Mach 0.95-0.98 (about 650 mph or 1,050 km/h at altitude), the Sonic Cruiser promised 15-20% faster speed than conventional airliner without the noise pollution caused by the sonic boom from supersonic travel. The aircraft design was to fly at altitudes in excess of 40,000 ft (12,000 m), and a range somewhere between 6,000 nautical miles (11,000 km) and 10,000 nautical miles (19,000 km). Boeing estimated the Sonic Cruiser's fuel efficiency to be comparable to best performing twin-engine wide body airliners in 2002.
Wind tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamics analysis further refined the Sonic Cruiser concept. Based on artwork released by Boeing in July 2002, the Sonic Cruiser now sported two taller vertical tails with no inward cant, and the forward canard was set at zero degrees dihedral. Boeing was working to finalize the aircraft's configuration in mid-2002.
Cancellation and subsequent research
In the end, most airlines favored lower operating costs over a marginal increase in speed, and the project did not attract the interest for which Boeing had been hoping. The Sonic Cruiser project was finally abandoned by December 2002 in favor of the slower but more fuel-efficient 7E7 (later renamed Boeing 787 Dreamliner). Much of the research from the Sonic Cruiser was applied to the 787, including carbon fiber reinforced plastic for the fuselage and wings, bleedless engines, cockpit and avionics design.
On April 16, 2012, Boeing published an application for a patent for an aircraft configuration similar to that of the Sonic Cruiser.
- Related development
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