Airbus Considers Matching Sonic Cruiser with Own Design

Airbus Considers Matching Sonic Cruiser with Own Design

Manufacturer will Talk to Airlines to Gauge Demand for Concept

As Boeing [BA] continues to draw praise from airlines for its plans to build a long-range, high-speed airliner, Airbus Industrie has announced that it is considering the possibility of building its own version of the Boeing concept. Airbus is also stressing that these smaller, faster aircraft would complement rather than compete with its planned A380 superjumbo.

Airbus will soon talk to airline officials to see if the demand claimed by Boeing for its “Sonic Cruiser” design actually exists, said Airbus Vice President Adam Brown on April 6 at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual Airline Financial Summit in New York City. He made similar comments at an industry event in Dallas.

Brown told World Airline News that if demand does exist, Airbus could well produce the aircraft before Boeing rolls out its own version. The future market for aircraft with a longer range could be met by a combination of new aircraft from both manufacturers, he said.

The Airbus move is the latest in a war of words and designs between the two largest aircraft manufacturers over the future demands of the airline industry.

Airbus announced last year that the A380 would eventually replace the Boeing 747 family with its ability to carry 555 passengers in a three-class configuration. The aircraft will enter service in 2006.

While toying with the idea of modifying the 747-400 to carry more passengers, Boeing said that its own projections indicate that there is no market for superjumbos, and that increasing demand for point-to-point service would lead airlines to instead seek smaller, faster aircraft.

To support this position, Boeing last month unveiled plans for the Sonic Cruiser, which would cruise at Mach 0.95 with a range of up to 9,000 nautical miles (WAN, March 30).

A number of airline officials – most recently American Airlines [AMR] CEO Don Carty – have declared their admiration of the Boeing approach, although Airbus has more solid support for the A380 in the form of purchase commitments.

Brown said that a much faster aircraft has been considered by Airbus, “but it never made much sense.” He doubts whether “rather marginal savings in journey time” would justify the increased fuel burn. However, Airbus will now be “sitting down with airlines to see if the tradeoffs make sense,” said Brown.

If the numbers did add up, Brown pointed out that Airbus engineers have much more experience with supersonic aircraft, and pioneered advanced aerospace technologies such as fly-by-wire that the new aircraft would need. “If the tradeoffs did make sense, I could see Airbus being the first people to do it [produce a faster aircraft],” Brown said.

Brown said that Airbus engineers question the Boeing concept of a Mach 0.95 cruising speed, as this is an aerodynamically unstable speed. He said that it may be easier to build an aircraft capable of Mach 1.5.

Although Brown said this type of aircraft has not been seriously considered by Airbus, the company reportedly has at least one concept design in its books for an aircraft similar to the Sonic Cruiser.

Long-Range Aircraft Would Complement, Not Compete With A380

Brown told WAN that the success of the A380 would not necessarily prevent the development of an aircraft like the Sonic Cruiser.

He said that a smaller, long-range, high-speed aircraft could be “an effective complement to the A380.” Even if Airbus decides not to build such an aircraft, the position as long-range complement to the A380 could also be filled by planned extensions of existing models, such as the A340-500.

Brown points out that Airbus estimates a demand for 1,000 very long range aircraft by 2019, which could be met by a combination of the Sonic Cruiser, the A340-500, and possibly a new high-speed, long-range Airbus aircraft.

Many observers have said that if both the superjumbo and high-speed aircraft reach market, it could lead to further differentiation between business and leisure travellers, with business travelers taking the more convenient, faster, point-to-point flights.

In his speech at the IATA conference, Brown said that while there will always be some demand for point-to-point travel, in the future the airline industry will be increasingly dominated by hub-to-hub service. This will drive the demand for larger aircraft, coupled with a desire to reduce airport congestion.

Brown highlighted the difference in the Boeing and Airbus demand forecasts for larger aircraft. He said Airbus predicts there will be a need for 360 aircraft with more than 500 seats by 2009, and 1,235 by 2019. Boeing’s numbers indicate a need for 87 aircraft larger than the 747-400 in 2009, and 336 in 2019, Brown said.

The aircraft will also save airlines money, Brown said, citing Airbus figures that the A380 will have a 15 percent lower operating cost per seat than the B747-400. This figure was derived from fuel, maintenance, flight crew, landing fee, and purchase costs.

Brown said there are now 62 firm orders and 54 options for A380 production, including a firm order for 10 freighters from Federal Express. This already lifts the total above the Boeing prediction for 2009, he said. Further orders are expected to soon be announced by Lufthansa.

Although Boeing has shelved plans for a stretched 747-400, Brown said Airbus business projections for the A380 assume that sooner or later, it will be faced with a direct competitor. – Adrian Schofield >TK

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