Aeroplane updates heat up Airbus Boeing rivalry

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Media captionJorn Madslien discovers how Airbus plans to compete with its American rival Boeing

By aviation standards, the Airbus manufacturing plant where pylons are made seems small and insignificant, at least when compared with the vast hangars where aeroplane fuselages are made.

But this operation on the outskirts of Toulouse is not only vital to every aircraft the company builds.

It is also where they are making the pylon that will connect a new type of engine to the best-selling A320 aeroplane's wings.

That might sound like a minor detail, but it is of huge significance, both as a technological leap and in terms of the commercial future of Airbus.

"It's a significant challenge for the team," says Tom Williams, executive vice president, programmes at Airbus.

"It's not a minor task. The next tech leap won't take place till 2025 or 2030."

Taking shape

The decision to fit the single aisle A320 aeroplane with new engines was taken in 2010, after years of careful deliberation and secretive behind-the-scene development work.

Image caption Airbus says the winglets provide a substantial boost in fuel economy

Last week, with the first pylon being produced, the first A320neo - short for "new engine option" - is beginning to take shape.

"We've been going through the design phase up to now, and what you're actually seeing today is the manufacture of the first crucial component," says Mr Williams, suggesting the aeroplane will be delivered to the launch customer in 2015.

"We're now starting to see real embodiment, real progress."

In addition to the new, more fuel efficient engines, the Neo, as the plane is often referred to, will also be kitted out with vertical extensions to its wings.

These so-called winglets, or "sharklets" as Airbus has dubbed them, also make the planes more efficient.

"Taken together, this allows us to give the customer about a 15% reduction in fuel burn, and of course fuel burn is one of the biggest factors in terms of airline operating cost today," says Mr Williams.

Improved economics

Out on the runway, experimental test pilot Captain Etienne Miche de Malleray is pushing ahead with a test programme for the sharklets, which look like surfboards rising from the top of the A320 wings.

Image caption Airbus its fitting a new engine to its best-selling A320 single aisle aircraft

The sharklets will deliver about a fifth of the Neo's overall fuel savings over the A320ceo, or current engine option, he says.

Hence, Airbus will soon offer the winglets as an option on all its A320 planes, regardless of whether customers order the current or the new engine.

Reduced fuel burn enables airlines to carry more fuel, thus extending the range of the aircraft, or they can carry more weight, be it more passengers or more freight, Captain de Malleray observes.

In short, the technological advances are pushed through to improve the economics of flight.

Cash cows

In no segment of the aviation market is economics more important than for single aisle aeroplanes that seat some 150 passengers.

The segment, which is estimated to be worth some $2tn (£1.3bn) over the next two decades, is dominated by the Airbus A320 and its rival Boeing 737, which is also scheduled for an engine update, with the 737Max.

Image caption Airbus says the A320neo will offer substantial fuel savings in the key single aisle aircraft sector

Single aisle aircraft account for about three quarters of production for both Airbus and Boeing, hence they are often described as the aeroplane makers' cash cows.

Earnings from single aisle planes are vital, not only in terms of profits today, but also because they help pay for research and development programmes that will secure the plane makers' long-term survival.

This includes paying for the initial loss-making periods of programmes such as Airbus' large hub-to-hub A380 plane or Boeing's hi-tech 787 Dreamliner, which have both suffered severe delays both in terms of delivery to customers and in terms of bringing in profits to the manufacturers.

Avoiding delays

Delays and other complications can be costly to aeroplane makers, well beyond actual expenditure.

The reputation of an aircraft and its maker is on the line when things go wrong, as experienced by Airbus this year when it admitted that cracks in brackets in the wings of its A380 would need fixing at vast expense.

Image caption Airbus's A380 project has not run as smoothly as their airline had hoped

Boeing, meanwhile, has suffered severe delays to its Dreamliner programme, allowing Airbus to catch up with its A350 family of aircraft, which will also compete with Boeing's 777 planes.

The A350 XWB, or extra wide body, promises up to 30% better fuel economy than similarly sized aircraft, seating some 270-350 passengers.

The reason why is on display in the vast hangar where technicians are working on the plane. Extensive use of carbon fibre to clad both the wings and the fuselage has enabled Airbus to dramatically reduce the aeroplane's weight.

Airbus' new chief executive, Fabrice Bregier, is confident that the aeroplane maker has learnt valuable lessons from the difficulties experienced by Airbus' own A380 team, as well as by the mistakes made by rival Boeing during its Dreamliner programme.

Mr Bregier is hopeful that the A350 XWB will enter service by the middle of 2014, with test flights starting next year.

It is a tough timetable, but industry observers agree that if Airbus can stick to it, then the European aerospace giant could well steal a significant march on its US rival in the years ahead.

This year's Farnborough airshow will be open for the industry from 9-13 July, then for the general public on 14 and 15 July.

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