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The movers and shakers of the world’s aerospace industry this week show off their wares at the Paris Air Show like catwalk models parading down haute couture’s runways. But while Airbus and Boeing may battle over who wins the most exciting headline orders, critics will be focusing on what is going on backstage.
The world’s biggest aircraft manufacturers have had a three-year run of record orders on the back of a global boom in aviation and thanks to the introduction of increasingly fuel-efficient aircraft. Now, they have to prove that they can churn out the jets for the mass market without the traditional production stumbles that have left customers frustrated and investors seething at extra costs.
Few analysts have been expecting another year of bumper air show orders. But that hardly worries Boeing and Airbus right now. Together, the US and European airliner makers have an order book, of close to 12,000 aircraft, representing between eight and 10 years’ production. That is a long time for any airline customer to wait.
With manufacturers from countries such as China and Canada attacking the market for commercial passenger aircraft, the stakes are high for both companies — even if these challengers still have much to prove.
“The number one thing on our minds is delivery,” says Randy Tinseth, head of marketing for Boeing. “We have to make sure our programmes deliver on time and on budget.”
Tom Williams, Airbus chief operating officer, says the European aircraft manufacturer has to “build a single-aisle aircraft about every six hours. It is a drum beat and intensity that is very demanding.”
The two companies are set to produce roughly 28 per cent more aircraft in 2018 than the 1,400 expected to be made in 2015. Recently, both have mooted accelerating production rates on their most popular narrow-bodies — Airbus on its 320 single-aisle and Boeing on its 737 — to meet a growing demand for air travel which shows no sign of slacking.
Boeing is forecasting a doubling of the world’s commercial passenger and cargo fleet to 43,560 aircraft over the next 20 years and a rise in the annual number of passengers from 3bn to 7bn.
Boeing’s ambitious plans have raised concerns that its long, complex supply chains may not be up to the job. Much effort has been put into ensuring that the smallest suppliers have the resources to meet the increased tempo of production that will come over the next few years.
The chief executive of one components company says he was summoned by an equipment manufacturer who was not a direct customer to be grilled about his capacity and resources. “They had discovered that we were supplying their suppliers in different areas, and so we were found to be critical,” he said.
At the same time, aircraft and engine manufacturers are demanding price cuts, which are putting many smaller companies at the bottom of the supply chain under intense pressure and could threaten the smooth running of the production line.
Delivery of an entire aircraft can be delayed by the smallest of components, Didier Evrard, head of programmes at Airbus, points out. Alix Partners, the consultancy, estimates that suppliers’ share of the industry’s overall profits has fallen from 24 per cent in 2007 to 21 per cent in 2014, with the sharpest decline in the companies that contribute to the aircraft structure.
While the supply chain will remain a persistent concern, the industry is also watching nervously for the first signs of a downturn. “At present, demand for new aircraft remains robust and backlogs are at record highs,” says Murdo Morrison, head of strategic content at Flightglobal, the aviation news and data organisation.
“But the naysayers cite enduring industry cyclicality and the potential for some black swan event — another 9/11 or global financial crash — as risks that could weaken demand even as [manufacturers] raise their rates,” he adds.
Analysis by Flightglobal of production rates versus fleet and traffic growth suggests that the biggest risk could be towards the end of this decade, when new entrants arrive in the market. “Our enduringly cyclical sector is already seven years into the current cycle, which began with a downturn in 2008,” Flightglobal’s analysis says. “While every cycle is different, the risk that the increasing rates arrive towards the back end of this cycle must be borne in mind.”
The production challenge is not just about new aircraft types. Boeing and Airbus also have the delicate task of keeping the production lines going while transitioning from older aircraft to new, more fuel-efficient re-engined models.
Airbus has hinted that it has a bumper crop of orders ready for the A330 wide-body twin-engined aircraft, to be replaced by the A330neo in 2017. These orders are “particularly important because the company needs [them] soon to fill its planned production for 2016”, says Douglas Harned, aerospace analyst with investment manager Bernstein.
Boeing, too, will be expected to give more clarity on how it will bridge the gap between its 777 long-range wide-body and the updated 777Max, due to enter service in 2020.
Aircraft leasing companies will — as last year — be central to the manufacturers’ success and low oil prices could make these less fuel-efficient aircraft more attractive. Over the past year, lessors have become increasingly important customers and Boeing forecasts that by 2020 half the world’s airline fleet will be leased.
Last year at the Farnborough Airshow, lessors out-ordered the carriers by more than 40 per cent. Their hunger for aircraft shows no sign of abating, and that is all good news for the manufacturers.
“There is solid demand in the marketplace,” said Boeing’s Mr Tinseth last week. “It is a robust, strong marketplace going into the future.”
John Leahy, head of marketing at Airbus, cites the hunger for air travel that will grow as the middle class expands in regions such as Asia and Africa. “You cannot have GDP growth around the world without aviation growing at the same time,” he says.
At some point “there will be a downturn”, says Chris O’Geen, managing director, aerospace and defence investment banking at Jefferies, the US securities firm. “The question is when. But if you look at the backlogs on engines and aircraft, we have never seen such levels. Our view is that there should still be a strong market for the next three to five years.”