Civil airliner makers plot next moves amid record-breaking production rates
With another hectic year ahead for the commercial aircraft manufacturers, 2013 will see a shift in focus to widebody developments with the first flight of the and stretched -9, and more clarity over the fate of the smaller A350-800 and a timetable for the .
The single-aisle market will see first flight of's , design freeze for 's 737 MAX and progress on engines for the Airbus with flight tests of Pratt & Whitney's and ground tests of CFM's —the Leap-1C version will power Comac's , assembly of which is to begin in 2013. is expected to launch its 'G2' successor to the E-Jet series later in the year.
Aviation Week Intelligence Network (AWIN) forecasts production of 9,287 commercial and regional airliners valued at over $994 billion over the five-year period 2013-17. Boeing will lead with 43% of production, with Airbus at 36%. While the European manufacturer will take 49% of the 5,302-aircraft narrowbody market, Boeing will have 65% of the 2,182-aircraft widebody market.
What will make 2013 particularly challenging for Airbus and Boeing is that the wave of development activity coincides with production levels rising to historic highs. Both manufacturers are keenly aware of the potential for disaster if their planned ramp-up and development schedules are impacted by supply-chain issues or engineering capacity shortfalls.
As Airbus starts flight testing and initial production of the A350, it also has to ensure that the transition from the current A320 family to the A320NEO goes smoothly, while managing an increasingly strained supply chain and weathering economic uncertainty.
The next 12-24 months will also tell whether Airbus has learned from its own, as well as Boeing's, past mistakes. Although not originally planned, Boeing ended up running theand 787 development programs in parallel and wants to avoid repeating that. While Boeing may find this impossible to avert, at least partially, given its commitments on 737 MAX, 787-9 and , Airbus has already acted by opting against developing a new-design replacement for the A320, instead going for minimum change on its next narrowbody aircraft. But with the experience of long delays on the program in mind, Airbus has introduced much tighter monitoring it hopes will make a repetition for the same reasons all but impossible.
Airbus is currently assembling the third A350 and plans to slowly ramp up production. The first aircraft is to make its maiden flight this summer; an exact date has not been announced but rollout is tentatively planned for April. If everything goes to plan, the first A350-900 will be delivered in the second half of 2014, following certification.
For the A350, 2013 will also be a crucial year for suppliers. Airbus has so far managed to limit delays to a few months, despite early production problems particularly in wing assembly. But some high-risk work has yet to be finished. Scrambling to stay on schedule, Airbus introduced weight-saving design changes to the A350 in batches. The changes lead to extra design and manufacturing work for suppliers, and sources in the supply chain have warned they could face bottlenecks.
As Airbus wrestles with getting the -900 certified and into service next year, work on the revised A350-1000 is intensifying. Deliveries were planned for 2015, but Airbus extended the schedule by two years to allow time for development of higher-thrustengines that key customers like Emirates and have requested. Some customers are still not entirely happy, and debate centers on how much range future long-haul aircraft should offer. Persian Gulf area carriers need extreme ranges to serve destinations such as the U.S. West Coast. With orders for only 88 aircraft by mid-November, the -1000 is still a slow-seller.
At the same time, Airbus is faced with a decision on whether—and when—the smallest version of the A350 family, the -800, needs to be built. The aircraft is seen as the least attractive variant. Airbus has 118 firm orders for the -800, but some customers have recently opted to move to the larger -900. That trend coincides with Airbus's interests, as it could take pressure off the development schedule, allowing the manufacturer to focus on the -900 and -1000.
Airbus has completed the ramp-up to 42 aircraft a month for the A320 family. The company has never produced as many narrowbodies before and held off from increasing output to 44 mainly because of concerns that suppliers couldn't handle the workload.
Any further increase in production will now likely come only after the introduction of the A320NEO in 2015 and the transition of production to the new model. There are differing views on how difficult it will be for Airbus to sustain the 42-per-month rate during the transition; some observers expect demand to dip just ahead of the NEO introduction. Others argue it is only lessors and financiers that have reason to be concerned about residual values. But those concerns could be an issue not only for late-production A320 classics, but also longer term for NEOs, depending on the length of the production run.
More than five years after its entry into service, the A380 is also still a major drag on Airbus resources. Demand has been slowing and the program remains highly reliant on huge orders from its single largest customer. Of the 257 aircraft on firm order so far, 90 (or more than a third of the backlog) are for Emirates. Airbus had targeted 30 orders in 2012, but with only one follow-on sale toand a new order for four from Transaero, the company looked unlikely to get anywhere near the target as the year drew to a close.
Airbus also hopes design changes to the A380 wing can be certified before the year-end. Airlines continue to deal with ongoing repairs and checks for wing cracks in certain areas, grounding parts of the fleet and substantially impacting operations. Because a new production-standard wing will not be available sooner, there is already an impact on 2013 deliveries; these will likely not reach a previous target of around 30. Qatar Airways has stated it will only accept aircraft that have design changes incorporated that supersede the permanent fix proposed by Airbus for the current wing design.
Additional costs for repairs, fix development and customer compensation are making the business case for the A380 even more precarious. Airbus has claimed it will break even on the program in 2015. But that calculation only includes the recurring costs of production. What is not taken into account are the development costs—well in excess of €10 billion, plus interest—that must be paid back eventually.
Boeing also faces recouping similarly huge development costs for the 787 and 747-8 programs, deliveries of which are increasing after their delayed certification in 2011. Facing similar production ramp-ups as Airbus, as well as the daunting prospect of five new development efforts over the next five to six years, 2013 will see Boeing implement a new unit, called Airplane Development, dedicated to bringing aircraft through development to certification.
Announcing the initiative in December 2012,President Ray Conner says the move will “clarify responsibility, streamline decision-making and accelerate our progress” as the company tackles development of the 787-9, first flight of which is due in 2013 along with final design freeze of the 737 MAX. Boeing is simultaneously developing the KC-46A tanker for the U.S. Air Force and, assuming sufficient orders, is likely to launch the “double-stretch” 787-10X by mid-2013. Last, but not least, Boeing is expected to put renewed focus on its longer-term plans to develop the proposed 777X derivative.
Airplane Development will lead the design, development, certification and testing of the new products. The integration of new aircraft into Boeing's production system will be managed by Airplane Programs, which will oversee management of profit and loss for each program.
Boeing is already in the midst of rate increases across all lines. Since late 2011 the company has ramped up production by around 15%, and over the next 18 months will increase the rate by a further 25%. The plan sees 737 production rising to 38 a month in the second quarter of 2013, on its way to 42 a month by 2014, with the 777 to 8.3 by early in 2013 and the 787 to 10 a month by year-end. The 767 line is stabilizing at two per month as it transitions to the KC-46A. Boeing has no plans to alter its two-per-month rate for the 747-8, despite ongoing softness in the freighter market.
The key priorities facing Boeing in 2013 center on ensuring a smooth transition to the MAX and a correct product-development strategy for the 777X. With 787 assembly woes now largely behind it, and deliveries accelerating, the challenge is to ensure the company's two cash cows continue to flourish in the single- and twin-aisle markets.
The coming 12 months are also particularly important for Bombardier, now that the Canadian manufacturer has pushed first flight of the CSeries to the middle of the year. Postponement from late 2012 not only delayed entry-into-service of the baseline CS100 to mid-2014, it sparked yet more CSeries criticism, with detractors adding supply-chain concerns to the perennial arguments of weak sales and stiff competition from Airbus and Boeing.
The loss of an expected launch order for a 160-seat high-capacity variant of the CS300 fromGroup only compounded Bombardier's year-end woes, although the airframer is adamant CSeries sales will materialize and that its current backlog is adequate for a clean-sheet launch.
China's Comac C919, by far the biggest Asian commercial-aircraft development effort and most serious challenger to Airbus and Boeing, is unlikely to make its scheduled 2014 first flight or its 2016 first delivery. Achieving the schedule is theoretically possible but not likely, say industry executives. Backed by abundant support from the Chinese state, however, the program is moving steadily forward.
The C919 is expected to be about as efficient as the re-engined A320 and 737, if Comac performs to target. That will still leave the state-owned company with the challenge of persuading airlines it is a dependable supplier. Few, if any, of the 380 announced orders meet the Western criteria for definitive contracts. The C919's predecessor, Comac'sregional jet, is now expected to be certified in 2014 after 12 years of development and its technical competitiveness is declining. Despite the delays, the aircraft is still listed as having more than 300 orders and commitments.
New scope provisions emerging at U.S. carriers, while failing to bring a rush of 80- to 90-seat orders, could provide some respite for Bombardier's beleaguered CRJ line in 2013. But the small number of 70- and 76-seaters needed by the U.S. majors will be dwarfed by several hundred 50-seat retirements to begin later in the year as the legacies, notably Delta, eliminate unprofitable feeder routes.
AWIN forecasts production of 1,000 regional jets over 2013-17, with Embraer accounting for 57% (90% of them), Sukhoi Civil Aircraft 20%, and Bombardier and Comac almost tied with just under 10% each. Of the almost 560 regional turboprop deliveries forecast, will take close to 80%, and Bombardier the rest.
Mitsubishi Aircraft's70/90-seat regional jet appears to be attracting interest just as the company finds it cannot deliver the aircraft until late 2015 or early 2016, at least two years behind the original schedule. Mitsubishi is looking at how it can ramp up production faster and reach a higher steady output rate than originally planned. A key issue is finalization of a proposed order for 100 MRJs by U.S. carrier SkyWest, which would like to buy more aircraft.
Embraer meanwhile plans to begin offering its revamped E-Jet 'G2' series early in 2013, with a formal launch of the 78-122-seat family by year-end. Major decisions on systems and engine selections are expected at the start of the year, with the engine choice down to's NG34 successor to the program, CFM's Leap-1 for the larger E190G2/E195G2 versions, or a new two-shaft design from Rolls. As with Boeing's 777X concept, the G2 redesign builds on the existing Embraer fuselage with a new wing and engines, as well as related system improvements. Having studied its options for many years, it seems Embraer's G2 plan is set to accelerate rapidly in 2013. Introduction into service is provisionally scheduled for 2018.
With Leithen Francis in Singapore and Bradley Perrett in Beijing.
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