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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Potential customers debate Boeing and Airbus narrow-body strategies

By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
PHOENIX — In the narrow-body war that has broken out in the airplane business, large U.S. carriers Delta and United are potential targets for Airbus as it pitches a plane to displace those airlines' aging and now discontinued Boeing 757 jets.

Airbus is offering a spanking new fuel-efficient engine on its 220-seat A321 by 2016. Boeing won't have a direct competitor until the end of the decade.

"Delta and United should be in the gleaming eyes of Airbus," said Doug Runte, managing director of Piper Jaffray as he moderated an industry panel discussing the A321 Monday at the annual conference of the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) in Phoenix.

The top buyers and financiers of airliners at the conference focused on the competing and divergent strategies of Boeing and Airbus.

Boeing is looking to launch a new airplane, the 797, that would replace the upper end of the 737 family as well as the 757.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh said the company wants to avoid the disastrous delays that happened on the 787 Dreamliner program by not adding too much new technology on the 797.

"We need to limit the risk and make sure that what we are biting off is not as much as we bit off on the 787," Albaugh said. "I don't want this airplane to be the son of 787."

Still, if it goes ahead, the 797 won't arrive until the end of the decade.

Bombardier executive Gary Scott made a vigorous case that his new CSeries jet will dominate the low end of the narrow-body category, from 100 to 150 seats.

Albaugh virtually conceded Boeing won't even bother with that market segment. Airbus doesn't plan to put a new engine on its smallest airplane until 2017, perhaps in practice conceding the same.

But at the high end of the small-jet market, the big guys are going head to head with very different approaches.

Sigthor Einarsson, until a few weeks ago the deputy chief executive of Icelandair, said his airline — an all-757 operator looking to renew its fleet — was delighted by Airbus' move to re-engine the A321, providing an option that didn't exist before.

Einarsson, who still consults for Icelandair, said the A321neo (for "new engine option") will be able to fly virtually all Icelandair's current routes. "Icelandair was delighted to have an option that comes close to the 757," he said in an interview.

Einarsson said Airbus has trapped Boeing into the position of offering an all-new plane because a new engine won't fit under the low wing of the 737 without a significant redesign.

But now that Boeing is talking up the prospects of a new plane, he said, Icelandair "is looking carefully at what Boeing is doing on the 797."

He said the airline can wait until 2020 or even beyond if it has to, and won't decide until it gets more detail from Boeing.

Earlier Monday, Adam Pilarski, a leading aviation analyst with consulting firm Avitas, predicted Boeing would be forced to put a new engine on the 737 this year.

Pilarski said that before 2020 there is no revolutionary technology available besides the new engines Airbus will use to justify spending the vast sums required to launch a new plane.

"Maybe doing something quickly is a better idea," said Pilarski. "Waiting a decade, you help the Chinese and Russians establish a beachhead."

But Albaugh, in his presentation later in the day, reiterated that he sees no business case for putting a new engine on the 737. He bet Pilarski a bottle of wine that the latter's prediction would prove wrong.

Albaugh said the current 737 will be built in Renton for at least 15 or 20 years, even after any new jet enters service.

He said he wants to use Boeing's engineering talent to build a new plane.

"We've just trained 18,000 engineers how to do development programs," said Albaugh, referring to the new 787 and 747-8 jet projects. "It's our intent to roll those people into new programs."

He also committed Boeing to developing a new, larger version of the Dreamliner, the 787-10.

Albaugh conceded at the conference that the initial 787-8 version of the Dreamliner will not meet its original performance specification, although he said it will be able to fly the routes the airlines need with the payloads they require.

Over time, Albaugh said, the plane will be improved and will eventually meet its promised performance.

"When that date is going to be, I can't tell you," he said.

Norman Liu, chief executive of the world's largest airplane-leasing company, GECAS, said in an interview it will be years before it's clear whether Boeing or Airbus had the better narrow-body strategy.

"By 2025, there'll be thousands and thousands and thousands of the current versions of both the A320 and the 737, and the A320neo and whatever the new Boeing plane is," said Liu.

"Maybe in 2030, you can take stock of who was right or wrong."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or

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