November 14, 2013 9:00 pm

Manufacturers jostle for lead with widebodied jets

January 7: A fire broke out on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, owned by Japan Airlines, parked at Logan International terminal E©Getty

Incident: emergency workers attend a fire in a 787 Dreamliner at Logan airport in Boston. There were no passengers on the aircraft, but the blaze had serious implications for Boeing

For many in the aerospace industry, one of the most memorable images of 2013 will be January’s television footage of firefighters rushing to deal with a blaze inside a Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Boston’s Logan airport.

Boeing was rocked by the battery fire on the empty Dreamliner, operated by Japan Airlines. In a rare move, regulators ordered the temporary grounding of the worldwide fleet of 787s while Boeing fixed the problem.

The Dreamliner, Boeing’s newest and most sophisticated passenger jet, is setting new standards in fuel efficiency – it is made mainly from lightweight carbon composites rather than traditional aluminium.

But Boeing’s first-time use of lithium-ion batteries resulted in two cases of overheating – including the one at Logan airport.

Will 2013 end on a better note for Boeing, with the launch of a planned upgrade to its twin-engined 777 long-haul jet at the Dubai air show that begins on Sunday? And will this demonstrate that Boeing has made better bets than Airbus, its arch-rival, in the lucrative wide-body jet market?

Boeing is proposing a new version of its popular 777 jet, featuring more fuel-efficient engines and carbon composite wings, in a project dubbed the 777X.

Emirates Airline is considering becoming a 777X launch customer by buying as many as 100 of these jets – a deal that could give Boeing a $30bn-plus record-breaking order.

“I think, whatever happens, there will be a substantive order for the new 777,” Tim Clark, Emirates Airline’s president, said last month, although he stressed at the time no deal had been finalised.

Boeing’s plans for the 777X highlight how it is trying to outmanoeuvre Airbus in the wide-body, twin-engined market by having more next-generation models than its European rival.

The US manufacturer aims to have five such jets: three versions of the Dreamliner plus two 777X models, carrying between 210 and 400 passengers.

By contrast, Airbus is only proposing one new wide-body jet – the A350, with plans to make it available in three versions, which will carry between 270 and 350 passengers. The A350 will compete with both the Dreamliner and the 777X, suggesting the European manufacturer would not have Boeing’s breadth of coverage.

However, Fabrice Brégier, Airbus’ chief executive, said last month the company could potentially build a fourth, enlarged version of the A350 by stretching its fuselage.

Analysts say Airbus’ notable success last month in securing its first order from Japan Airlines for 31 A350s, worth $9.5bn at catalogue price, might partly have been the result of problems with the Dreamliner – although the Japanese carrier’s management insisted the deal had nothing to do with the 787 issues.

Jim McNerney, Boeing’s chief executive, said last month the Japan Airlines order with Airbus was “a campaign we did not want to lose”.

“We will take it as a sign to do better and work harder,” he added.

He tempered Boeing’s disappointment in Japan by highlighting that Lufthansa had, in September, placed its first order for wide-body, twin-engined aircraft with the US manufacturer, by proposing to buy 34 777X jets.

Airbus is playing down the threat of the 777X by making an unflattering comparison with its initial proposal for the A350.

The original plans for the A350 involved attaching the aluminium fuselage of an Airbus A330 wide-body jet to new carbon composite wings – but airlines did not rush to buy the aircraft because its operating costs were inferior to those of the Dreamliner.

“The modified older aeroplane like [the original A350 proposal] can never have the same economics as the clean sheet of paper aeroplane,” says John Leahy, Airbus’ chief operating officer for customers, adding pointedly: “And that is what [Boeing] are running into right now [with the 777X].”

The final proposal for the A350 was a new design made principally from carbon composites. Airbus is aiming to deliver the first A350 to Qatar next year.

While keeping the A350 plans on track will be a big challenge, the most glaring issue for Airbus this year has been the lack of orders for the A380 superjumbo – which entered service in 2007. Doric Lease Corp has made a preliminary commitment to buy 20 A380s, and Airbus is hoping this will convert into an order before the end of 2013.

Randy Tinseth, a Boeing marketing executive, says Airbus overestimated the size of the market for large wide-body jets with four engines, such as the A380. Last month, Boeing reduced production of the 747-8 – the latest version of its 44-year-old jumbo jet – for the second time this year, blaming the move on reduced demand.

Zafar Khan, analyst at Société Générale, the bank, says: “The A380 has a future, but more as a niche player in the market, and the A350, the 787 and 777X are likely to be the workhorses in the wide-body segment.”

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