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Airbus vs Boeing: the big question

The transatlantic David and Goliath spat continues as the A380 vs B787 debate intensifies aloft. The B787 Dreamliner gets flying again and a stretch version is in the works.

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by Vijay Verghese

SEE ALSO First Class Seat Survey | Business Class Seat Survey | Economy Class Seat Survey | Small Airlines Guide | Frequent Flier Programs | Business Class Seats Review

B787 vs A380, ANA took delivery of the first B787 on 26 September, 2011

ANA was the launch B787 customer

ONE is voluptuous and voluminous, combining the fulsome curves of a '60s Playboy model with the polish and poise of a portly dowager. Critics describe her as a “dinosaur”. The other is sleek, pretty, and quick, yet capable of long outings. She was late to the ball and her antagonists deride her as incontrovertibly “plastic”. Both are modern, high strung, and elegant in their own way. They have charmed, alarmed, been grounded, and hounded. Whom would you pick?

For all intents it could be a face-off between the alluring bloom of Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame and the diminutive but seductive appeal of dark-eyed Natalie Portman. On the surface, the Airbus vs Boeing spat may appear rather more prosaic, yet the story of this transatlantic argle-bargle – careening from the incredible to the insane – has all the ingredients of a rich period drama with bruised suitors, stiff upper lips, twists in the tale and the ever-present frisson of dark gossip surrounding wing cracks, battery smoke and engine fires.

So who will be standing at the final bell? Airbus? Or Boeing? More specifically, the mammoth fly-by-wire A380 – the distillation of years of electronic eugenics – or the carbon fibre composite marvel, the B787 Dreamliner? Much has been written about the transatlantic A380 vs B787 spat.

{Beating ANA, Ethiopian was the first to get its B787 back with an Addis Ababa to Nairobi passenger flight on 27 April, 2013...

The hugely-delayed rollout of the Airbus A380 behemoth took place on 25 September, 2007, with a Singapore Airlines inaugural flight from Singapore to Sydney, a charity event that raised US$1.83 million for Medecins Sans Frontiéres and two children's hospitals, proving at once that airlines can have heart; and that the aircraft, while immense, was no gas guzzler, with 20 percent less fuel burn per passenger than a conventional B747-400 (now phased out). By end 2014, Airbus had 144 firm orders and deliveries for the A380. In May 2013 SIA also became the first airline to commit to a 30-aircraft order of the stretch version of the Dreamliner, the Boeing 787-10X (expected to roll out 2018-2019), as part of a US$17 billion order that includes thirty A350-900 aircraft from rival Airbus.

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Airbus vs Boeing, the new THAI Airways Airbus A380 arrived end 2012

THAI A380 delivery, 29 Sep, 2012

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was delivered to the first recipient, a grateful and extraordinarily patient All Nippon Airways (ANA), on 25 September, 2011, a little over three years behind schedule (a total of 60 Dreamliners roll off the assembly line in 2013, against an order book of 890, a commercial coup). But the drama had only just begun. On 9 January, 2013 a Japan Airlines Dreamliner was grounded at Boston's Logan International Airport after a malfunctioning battery in the aircraft's ancillary power system caught fire. Smoke had been discovered in the rear of the cabin. Another 787 sprung a fuel leak. On 16 January, 2013, an ANA B787 was diverted to Japan's Takamatsu Airport and made an emergency landing with no reported passenger injuries after a cockpit smoke alarm went off.

Shortly after, both ANA (the largest Dreamliner operator at the time with 17 aircraft in operation early 2013) and JAL had grounded their B787 fleet. They were not alone. Worried about electrical fires and overheating batteries – the B787 runs almost entirely on electricity without the assistance of compressed air hydraulics – the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) speedily grounded the planes in USA. Also stopping flights were the European Aviation Safety Agency, Qatar Airways, LAN Chile, Air India, Ethiopian Airlines and the Polish LOT. Air India offered its Dreamliner up for sale-leaseback, not unusual in the airline world. At one stroke, the 50 aircraft in service had disappeared from the skies as attention turned to the Japanese lithium ion battery manufacturer, GS Yuasa Corporation.

The batteries have been cause for concern from the inception. United replaced three batteries from September to December 2012 while ANA had replaced 10 batteries from May to December, prompting Boeing chief executive James McNerney Jr to comment that the battery replacement was at a "slightly higher rate" than expected.

Thw twin engine A350 had a test flight on 14 June, 2013

A350 had a test flight 14 June, 2013

While Boeing's battery fix for the B787 (with a battery pack redesign, extra spacing, external vents, and fresh insulation) got the nod by airline regulators late April, 2013 with an ANA Dreamliner test flight on Sunday 28 April, 2013 (with ANA chief Shinichiro Ito and Ray Conner, Boeing President and CEO of the commercial division onboard), Ethiopian Airlines was the first back in the air with a B787 passenger flight 27 April from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. ANA was back with commercial B787 flights 27 May, 2013 and other airlines followed suit. Air India had its Dreamliners in the air mid May.

Airbus has announced meanwhile that it will not use lithium-ion batteries, preferring traditional nickel-cadmium power on the under-development A350, Airbus and Europe's answer to the lightweight B787. The new generation composite-material answer to the B787 from Airbus, the twin-engine A350 XWB, is a mid-size long range aircraft that will carry anywhere from 270 to 350 passengers when it enters service late 2014 with launch customer Qatar. This is considerably off the original 2012 target. The aircraft took to the skies from Toulouse on a maiden test flight on 14 June, 2013 fitted with its giant low carbon emission custom-designed Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines. This is the engine of choice for the 250-seater A350-800, the 350-seat A350-1000 and the ultra long-haul A350-900R. By mid-June 2013 the A350 had 613 orders in the bag.

This was followed by a massive breakthrough in Japan October 2013 with the announcement of a Japan Airlines deal worth over US$9bn for 31 Airbus A350 aircraft. Thus far JAL has been a staunch Boeing customer. The arrival of the "Dreamliner Killer" A350 will see a sharp acceleration in the battle between the two giant airline groups over who will win the B787 vs A350 argument.

It's easy to focus on Boeing's woes but both the B787 and the A380 jumbo have had their share of teething trouble. On 4 November, 2010, a Qantas A380 suffered “catastrophic” engine failure over Batam, Indonesia, as one of its Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines broke its casing, damaging the wing and forcing an emergency – but safe – landing in Singapore. Qantas swiftly grounded its entire A380 fleet and SIA ordered checks.

Singapore Airlines Airbus A380

Singapore Airlines A380 double-decker

Generating 72,000 pounds of raw thrust the Trent 900 is among the most powerful engines in the world designed for the largest airliner in the world. The spotlight swung to Rolls-Royce. Almost half of the 40 or so Airbus 380s in the air at the time were powered by this engine. This is not the first problem with the Trent 900 engine. Lufthansa had an issue at Frankfurt and Singapore Airlines reported an incident at Paris. Lufthansa, Qantas and SIA were the only three airlines with this engine (GE is the other supplier). All in, sufficient grounds for fresh Airbus vs Boeing argle-bargle.

The B787 grounding with a bill of over US$600 million for Boeing by May 2013 placed inordinate strain on the American aircraft manufacturer, which has pinned its hopes on this product over the next 15 years or so. As former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall pointed out, this could be "a very expensive problem." Airline operators like LOT (with purported losses of US$50,000 per day for each grounded B787) and ANA have brought up the subject of compensation. United took the B787 off its flight schedules from the date of initial grounding in January till 5 June, 2013. Crandall stakes his faith in Boeing though. “Boeing has been making great airplanes for years... they will fix it [the problem] and they will do so without compromising safety.” Boeing's embattled McNerney says he stands firmly behind the "overall integrity" of the aircraft. With a price tag of just over US$200 million per aircraft, the Dreamliner venture is a major undertaking by the largest aircraft manufacturing company in the world. While the battery fix for the B787 was being rolled out, Boeing's Larry Loftis, general manager of the 787 project, admitted, "it is possible we may never know the real cause".

{With double the room of a Boeing 747 and 50 percent less noise, the A380's operating costs are around 15-20% less per seat...

Airbus, which has had no qualms about sabre-rattling and PR derring-do across the pond, was uncharacteristically restrained in its comment. Speaking with journalists at the annual presentation of results mid-January 2013, in Toulouse, Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier said, "It's not our place to give Boeing lessons, we've had our own problems in the past." He was right to be cautious.

The B787 interiors are sleek and airy with moulded curves

Sleek and airy B787 interiors

The A380 is not out of the woods yet and the cost of fixing wing cracks has been estimated to run as high as US$666 million, an ominous figure for more than one reason. The lithium-ion batteries that flamed out on the B787 may have been dropped from the A350, but battery heating and back-up systems remain a concern. The fact that the A350 is less dependent on electrical systems – its braking and de-icing functions for example use normal hydraulics and bleed air – is not sufficient grounds for complacency.

Boeing and Airbus have been rivals a long while, both attempting to take the biggest possible bite out of the global airline pie. The stakes are high. What’s the fuss? Airbus opted for a super size aeroplane that could render the stalwart B747 all but obsolete, transporting a vast scrum of bodies in one neat package. While offering 49 percent more room than a Boeing 747 and 50 percent less cabin noise, the Airbus 380’s operating costs are around 15 to 20 percent lower per seat.

Add to this claims of fewer emissions, less noise, and a seat capacity stretching from the median 555 to a staggering 800 (double the heaving bottoms on a B747), and it’s small wonder airline accountants are beaming. Airbus believes its plane is more fuel efficient than a car. This shall be put to the test as fuel prices remain irksomely unpredictable, having crossed a wallet-thumping US$140 per barrel in the not too distant past before dropping to US$95 per barrel by early 2013.

As travel dips with a volatile global economy and lingering recession that has tightened the pilliwinks in passenger pockets, airlines are rethinking their aircraft orders. THAI Airways International canned its ultra-longhaul A340-500 Bangkok-New York JFK service in July 2008 citing soaring fuel costs that rendered both the route and the aircraft, uneconomical. In June 2009 the airline announced it wished to cancel an order for six A380s. It later pressed for a delayed delivery after Airbus took umbrage and the first superjumbo arrived from Toulouse on 29 September, 2012. By the end of 2012 THAI was the proud owner of its first three Airbus A380s.

Qantas A380 over Sydney harbour

Qantas A380 over Sydney

Boeing believes large capacity aircraft flying to big, overcrowded, dispersal “hubs” are passé. Travellers want speed, frequency, and direct connections. The B787 Dreamliner (formerly the B7E7) is the result of Boeing’s new preoccupation. The aircraft is swift and fuel efficient, with a cruising speed of Mach 0.85. It is smaller and can access regional airports without fuss. It also has a range that can extend to 16,000km carrying about 280 passengers. The good news for passengers is the B787 is pressurised for a lower altitude and with higher cabin humidity, which means you will not arrive at the other end looking and feeling like a desiccated peanut.

Indeed, a depressed travel market could favour the B787, which has the edge on fast-turnaround routes and a handy, manageable size. With around US$10 billion spent on its development by Boeing, this composite material ultra-light fuel-efficient aircraft hopes to revolutionise point-to-point services. Boeing maintains the aircraft will reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent and operating costs as a result by 15 percent. Small is now beautiful. This is no idle boast.

{The B787 has opted for a sweeping archways design and light diodes in the ceiling that mimic the changing sky colours...

Contemplating a mammoth 150 wide-body aircraft replacement, United Airlines has shied away from the B747 and the A380 to explore smaller twin-engine aircraft. United is one of Boeing's two largest customers (with 50 orders for the B787). The other major player is All Nippon Airways with 66 orders by early 2013.

Airbus dawdled long months on the assembly line with the A380. The dinosaur was late. Very late. Singapore Airlines, the launch customer received its first Airbus A380 in October 2007, a full year behind schedule leading to question marks regarding customer loyalty, final orders, and price reductions as compensation.

British Airways A380 welcome in Hong Kong 23 October, 2013

BA A380 water canon greeting HK Oct 2013

The SIA A380 carries just 471 passengers (not the sweaty 800 of journalistic scuttlebutt). In addition to 12 partitioned suites in a grade beyond first class – where a double bed can be created for passengers travelling together who might thus fully enjoy the feel of Givenchy linen aloft – the 60 business class seats on the upper deck recline fully flat and offer USB ports, in-seat power for a laptop and a 39cm (15.4-inch) LCD video screen. The seat width is 86cm or 34 inches with a forward-facing configuration of 1-2-1 permitting aisle access from every seat. SIA wants 25 planes.

The first Emirates A380 arrived in late July 2008 and orders have been placed for as many as 90 super jumbo aircraft.

British Airways has joined the A380 club as well and held a boisterous bash at Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok Airport to launch its 22 October, 2013, London-HK flights on this swank behemoth. In attendance, no less a personage than airline CEO Keith Williams, along with a bevvy of the beau monde, including fashionista Alice Temperley who staged a show and rock family Georgia May Jagger. British Airways has two daily flights to Hong Kong and the A380 has been pressed in for non-stop flights BA25 (from London) and BA26 (from Hong Kong). British Airways employs the aircraft on the HK and Los Angeles routes with Johannesburg (February 2014) on the horizon. Expect powder blue-grey cabins with large LCD screens for that nonstop entertainment. First class seats are forward facing while grey Club World (business) seats retain the head-faces-toe format.

Qantas, the Australian national carrier received its first aircraft late September 2008, two years off the original delivery date. Virgin had earlier announced holding back its purchase of six A380s for four years until 2013, while FedEx cancelled its order of 10 Airbus A380 aircraft, opting instead for the Boeing 777 freighter version, and UPS placed its order on hold. Kingfisher from India deferred delivery of five A380s, sensible perhaps as the airline was irretrievably broke and grounded by 2012. Yet Airbus clung on gamely. At the July 2008 Farnborough Air Show, Etihad weighed in with a 55 aircraft order with Airbus including 10 new A380 planes breathing fresh life into the programme.

The Korean Air A380 entered Asian skies with a Hong Kong service (17 June, 2011) offering a unique configuration – the entire upper deck the preserve of executive travellers with 94 Prestige Sleeper seats. The aircraft also has the lowest number of seats in all, just 407, creating a lot more stretch space to banish that scourge of the skies, deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Korean additionally deploys its A380 on flights from Seoul-Incheon to Los Angeles, New York and Frankfurt, with Atlanta in the pipeline.

Emirates A380 cabins have more elbow space and leg room

Emirates A380 interior cabin: stretch space

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner had a fast take-off with sales. By June 2007 it secured a tentative order for 50 aircraft from an aircraft leasing company. In October 2007 British Airways announced one of its biggest fleet orders in a decade with a mixed purchase of 12 Airbus A380 aircraft and 24 Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Said the BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh: "These aircraft set the gold standard when it comes to environmental performance." Yet, by July 2009, an embattled BA, coping with a travel slump, had announced it would hold back delivery of 12 Airbus A380s. By early 2011, the B787 had about 840 tentative orders on the books, the bulk of them for the 787-8 version. And by early 2013 this figure was up to an astounding 890 with orders from an eclectic bunch spanning everyone from Aeroflot and Air India to Singapore budget carrier Scoot, and Vietnam Airlines. The actual firm orders and deliveries by end 2014 however totalled 204.

The Air India B787 Dreamliner is a curvaceous affair with roomy high ceiling interiors with the overhead bins set high enough to eliminate claustrophobia. The large windows are welcoming of light though as with aircraft of this ilk the blue UV blocker that shuts out light turning the glass a deep cobalt blue or darker, gains mixed reactions. You can darken or lighten the window at the press of a button. I must confess the darkened windows offer the uncomfortable appearance of being submerged underwater. The 3-3-3 seating in economy is roomy with spacious seats and inches of valuable knee room.

Does physical size matter? This is the crux of the Airbus vs Boeing debate. The new, and larger, Airbus wing design ensures future versions of the aircraft can handle a total weight of up to 750 tons. This means the US$280m A380 will achieve optimum cost-efficiency carrying closer to 800 passengers. That’s a lot of beers and queues for the toilets – on two floors. Not perhaps what passengers want to hear. Of course, most airlines will opt for a more sensible seating configuration. Singapore Airlines offers 471 seats and a standard configuration is 555 seats. Assembly is a major production, one dogged by technical glitches, including engineering delays as the aircraft carries hundreds of kilometres of wire that have to be painstakingly fed through various parts of the frame.

{The A380 coliseum has failed to materialise, disappointing those who grequent flyers would love to toss all airline chefs to the lions...
 

The new Korean Air A380 has a dedicated top deck for business class

Korean Air A380, roomier with fewer seats

It is a beast of a carrier. Airports everywhere once quailing at the prospect raced to make accommodations. Heathrow’s Terminal Three underwent expensive redesign to accommodate the Airbus A380 and Emirates has introduced oversized ground equipment in Dubai at its dedicated new Terminal 3, which offers five aerobridges to suck out passengers from the Super Jumbo Airbus A380. The new aircraft is a space guzzler. It needs more runway to clear the ground, more taxiway for the sweep of its enormous 79m wingspan, and boarding gates need re-jigging to deal with the logistics of deplaning a swarm of passengers from a towering double-decker. On 12 April, 2011 the wingtips of a taxiing Air France A380 at New York’s JFK, struck the tail of a Delta commuter Comair flight, spinning the smaller plane around, proving once again, that might is right.

Fast the B787 may be but assembly has proved a headache. After three announcements on production delays, Boeing announced in early April 2008 that the plane would not be certified and delivered until late 2009 to its first customer, ANA (with 50 aircraft booked). Test flights were scheduled for late 2009 with actual delivery to ANA pushed back to later in 2010 (the first aircraft arrived 26 September, 2011).

The September 2008 Boeing machinists strike didn't help the timeline either. Delivery was pushed back further after an engine fire during late 2010 testing. Parts of the electrical system had to be redesigned. The short-range B787-3 is the worst affected and will turn up last, furthering the woes of main customer All Nippon Airways. Taking advantage of the melee, China Southern in April 2009 announced it wanted to delay delivery of 13 of its B787 Dreamliner aircraft. However, with the aircraft now airborne, all this could change in the face of compelling economics.

The Dreamliner is deliciously different and perhaps has been well worth the wait. It has opted for a sweeping archways design and light diodes in the ceiling that mimic the changing sky colours. As Boeing might ask, do you need to fly a football field halfway across the world? Many airlines believe so. Some will put in gyms, bars, casinos, shops, offices and even play areas – but not for the Mile High Club, whose members will have to fend for themselves in vast open spaces.

United's B787 fleet was grounded Jan to June 2013 after battery failures

United B787: also grounded Jan-June 2013

The coliseum has failed to materialise, disappointing those who would love to toss all airline chefs to the lions, Christian or not. And while a lot of seats can be crammed into an A380, not all airlines plan to do so.

The Boeing 787 cabin will offer a visually relaxing “sweeping archways” design, window shades whose opacity can be altered at the flick of a button, greater humidification of cabin air, and a sky simulation effect through the use of colour changing light-emitting diodes in the aircraft ceiling. Aisles are wider as are the seats. As with the bigger A380, the B787 is a very quiet aircraft rated to produce just about a quarter of the noise of a B747.

It is somewhat ironic that Boeing could have launched the very first double-decker aircraft over three decades ago. Pressed by visionary Pan Am founder Juan Trippe for large double decker aircraft, Boeing responded by designing the widebody B747, arguing that a two-storey aircraft would be plagued by far too many limitations.

Today it is more than likely that there is a market for both products, big and small. But the transatlantic diatribe continues to escalate. Boeing asserts earlier that Airbus competed, unfairly, through backdoor European subsidies. Yet, Boeing itself has been a major beneficiary of state and federal aid with Washington State bending over backwards to ensure the B-787 plant stays with them. Much of Boeing’s aircraft design has been a spin-off from US military-sponsored research.

{By 1949, Boeing 377 Stratocruisers were plying the North Atlantic with opulent digs and even living rooms for first class passengers
 

In early 2011, Boeing, returning to its BIG roots, unveiled the immense B747-8 Intercontinental, stretching 76m (5.6m longer than the B747-400) and a redesigned wing, cockpit and interiors able to fit in 467 seats. Across the Atlantic, customers queuing up for the A350 rollout include Virgin, Kingfisher, Vietnam Airlines, and feisty AirAsia (which announced a staggering US$2.4 billion order for ten A350 planes, the XWB version, at the 2009 Paris Air Show).

B787 vs A380, the ANA Dreamliner cabin is bright

ANA B787 interiors are bright

The A350 remains mired in a redesign debate after several potential buyers felt it compared poorly with the B787. As a consequence, the A-350 roll-out will also be delayed, giving Boeing a certain headstart in the mid-size market. The new Airbus A350 will eventually weigh in with a wider fuselage and expanded wing size. The A350 XWB (or extra wide body) as it will be termed, will extend the flight range to around 8,500 nautical miles. It will roll out in three versions, the A350-800, the A350-900 and the A350-1000, that will seat from 270 to 375 passengers. Airbus says this will be one of the "quietest" aircraft, with low emissions and 30 percent more fuel efficiency.

Now as the China dragon awakes, a new competitor plans to streak across the horizon, bidding for a share of the small jet market for the expected regional travel explosion. The Chinese made ARJ21 (literally, the Advanced Regional Jet for the 21st Century) is taking shape in the Shanghai ACAC plant with a dash of Boeing factory knowhow, huge dollops of government subsidies and, more recently, a Bombardier stake.

The small Comac ARJ21 Xiangfeng carries between 90 to 105 passengers serving regional airports in China and beyond. It should be particularly well adapted for short or high-altitude runways that require extra power or a sharp rate of climb.

The ARJ21 was expected to gain CAAC certification by 2010 but was been delayed with wing issues. In June 2014 it finally materialised for test flights as the ARJ21-700 AC105. The launch customer is Chengdu Airlines. In China alone domestic airlines are expected to purchase almost 3,500 new aircraft by 2025. And then there's China's 160-190-seat C919.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi, which shot to fame with its legendary Zero second world war jet fighter has unveiled its MRJ, or Mitsubishi Regional Jet. This is reportedly a very fuel-efficient machine with 70 to 90 seats. Backing it are the japanese government , Toyota and other firms. The MRJ has bagged 375 orders from airlines including ANA and SkyWest. Japan Airlines hopes to deploy some of these aircraft on domestic routes.

Bombardier's 130-seat Bombardier C130 with a range of 1,800 nautical miles, crosses swords with various small jets by Embraer.

A380 suite has stretch space and privacy

A380 suite - the future is here

Was big always beautiful? The prodigious and spectacularly ill-starred 12-engine Dornier Do-X was the world’s biggest aircraft in 1929, its hull accommodating a full three floors. The Wall Street crash ended its career despite a problem-plagued round-the-world PR stunt that took ten months to accomplish, achieving little in the end.

By 1949, double-decker Boeing 377 Stratocruisers were plying the North Atlantic with opulent digs, and even living rooms, for first class passengers. No flat seat hype then. The B377 used real beds. And there was the memorable Howard Hughes “Spruce Goose” (H4 Hercules) that took to the skies, briefly, in 1947. This extraordinary flying boat arrived too late to aid in the war effort – its prime purpose – and was relegated to museum attraction.

So, A380 or B787? Take your pick. Barring the hugely successful B747, aviation history has not been kind to passenger aircraft behemoths. Now, once again, we shall have to wait and see.

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