COMING one year after the battery fires that grounded all Boeing 787s for three months, the overheating of a of battery cell in a 787 at Tokyo’s Narita airport is a fresh blow to the reputation of the airplane maker’s flagship (pictured). But the fact that the incident did not cause another fire at least shows that the containment measures the company has taken do work. The root cause of the battery problem has never been disclosed, despite American authorities promising a full report which was due some months ago.
These incidents do not seem to be deterring airlines: last year Boeing sold 183 of the revolutionary aircraft, which boasts a fuselage made of lightweight composite materials that delivers superior fuel economy. But the battery problems have exacerbated a three year delay bringing the 787 into service, which has been a boon to Airbus. Last year it sold 239 of its rival A350 plane, due to enter service later this year. Airbus has also enjoyed several years of extended sales of its venerable A330, a medium-sized long-haul jet with a great reputation for reliability and a modest sales tag.
This has allowed Airbus to nose ahead of its rival last year in the wide-body market where Boeing has long led, thanks to its 747 and its best-selling twin-engined 777. In narrow-bodies Airbus’s A320 continues to outsell Boeing’s 737, helped by a version with a new engine coming to market ahead of Boeing’s similar upgrade. Overall Airbus outsold Boeing (1,503 versus 1,355), but Boeing is still ahead in the number of planes delivered—the result of several good years of sales. The remarkable thing is that between them both firms set another record in 2013 by selling nearly 2,600 jets, worth $423 billion at list prices. Neither had expected such a boom year. Airbus is already warning that this year sales will come down to earth. With order books stretching out some nine years, this will hardly hurt either company.
After a decade of expensive and troublesome product launches, both companies are now aiming to tweak existing models to prolong their life and deliver the better fuel consumption that airlines crave. Airbus in particular has a huge challenge to cling on to its narrow lead in wide-bodies. Boeing is starting work on an upgraded version of its 777, which will almost match the load and range of the venerable 747s now being phased out of fleets. Faced with this, Airbus needs to decide whether to produce a stretched version of its A350 to match the 777-9, as it is called.
Airbus is also mulling an upgrade of the A330 which first flew in the early 1990s. Both General Electric and Rolls-Royce are keen to have Airbus re-fit the plane with new engines originally developed for the Boeing 787. This would widen the market for them and make up for the slow cash flow caused by Boeing’s delays. AirAsia is publicly calling for such a souped-up version of the A330 which is the workhorse of its longer-haul fleet. For the moment Airbus is simply offering two tweaked versions. One has a great greater load and range. The other is a slimmed down version, with de-tuned engines, smaller fuel tanks and lighter seats, suitable for carrying up to 300 passengers. This version is aimed at the Chinese market, where air-traffic and airport congestion could boost demand for roomy planes on short journeys.
Both firms are straining to increase production, with Airbus even opening a final assembly plant in America. That, along with the efforts to squeeze improved performance from existing models, is what the industry is currently all about. Meanwhile, the much-heralded challenge of new entrants to the big-jet market from Brazil, Canada, China and Russia is proving slow to materialise, as their new products hit the same delays all too familiar to the incumbents.