At the beginning of the twentieth century, ocean liners were becoming both larger and more capable, with the newest types of each steamship line designated as flagships of their company for both advertising and corporate morale. Fast forward to the early twenty first century and we see a similar situation with wide body jetliners. In this case, the major airlines are seeking the most capable aircraft in terms of technology, capacity and range. During this blog, we'll trace the development of the two latest wide body jet designs, the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, in terms of the above comparisons, as well as a number of other categories.
In 2004, when Boeing first announced the 787 Dreamliner project, Airbus discounted the market threat from the Dreamliner to the Airbus A330 aircraft, with Airbus CEO Noel Forgeard stating Airbus senior management was skeptical of the composite material concept used in the construction of the 787. However, it wasn't long before a number of major airlines urged Airbus to offer a competitor to the 787 aircraft. Initially, Airbus offered the airlines an upgraded A330 aircraft, but this design proved unacceptable. Hence, Airbus agreed to commit E4 billion to the design of an entirely new aircraft. In December 2004 Airbus' shareholders, EADS and BAE Systems, authorized construction of the new aircraft, designated the A350. The A350 was to have seating capacity in the 250-300 passenger range with fuel efficiency improving by 10% due to aluminum-lithium wings with the plane powered by General Electric GEnx-72A1 engines, giving the plane a maximum range of 8,600 miles. Though a new aircraft design, the A350 did share a common fuselage cross-section with the A330.
The following year, Qatar Airways had placed an initial order for 60 A350s. In September 2006 the airline signed a memorandum of understanding with General Electric, which specified the GEnx-1A-72 engines were to be installed on the aircraft. Qatar reversed its decision later that year, opting to wait for a more improved version of the plane. The original A350 design also received negative reviews from two of Airbus' largest collaborators, International Lease Finance Corporation and GE Capital Aviation Services. Both firms insisted Airbus pursue a clean design or risk losing a substantial market share to Boeing. However, Airbus management continued to stall about building a totally new aircraft. Finally, when several airlines began to order the Boeing 787 over the initial A350 model, Airbus management formed a design team and agreed upon a new design concept for the A350. This new aircraft incorporated a ten-abreast seating arrangement, which allowed for a passenger capacity of 400-475 passengers, depending upon the configuration. The A350XBW (extra wide body) was also constructed with composite materials, like the Boeing Dreamliner. The A350XBW was constructed with a series of composite fuselage frames, with aluminum strips within the panels to ensure the electrical continuity of the fuselage in order to dissipate lightning strikes. The A350XWB also received more powered up jet engines in 2009 in the form of the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 and Trent XWB turbofan engines with thrusts of 84,200 and 97,000 lbs. respectively. The French-based Thales firm supplied avionics and navigation equipment for the A350XWB. During the course of 350XWB production, Airbus had to build ten additional factories while increasing capacity at three existing ones. Both the construction of new factories and the production costs of the A380 also slowed development of the A350XWB by two years, since the project was funded by existing Airbus cash flow. The A350XWB completed testing and certification in 2014, with delivery of the first aircraft to Qartar Airways in December 2014 and the first flight in January 2015.
In the late 1990's Boeing Aircraft was facing a problem with waning sales on both the 747 and 767 aircraft models. Two replacement aircraft were proposed to solve the problem on at least a short term basis. The first design, the 747X would have lengthened the 747-400 fuselage with improved efficiency, while an experimental aircraft, the Sonic Cruiser was designed to achieve a 15% increase in speed at the same burn rate as the 767 jetliner. Though several major airlines showed an initial interest in the Sonic Cruiser project, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 disrupted global airline service, resulting in a corresponding increase in petroleum prices. This resulted in a change of emphasis in a number of major airlines from getting the most passengers to a destination in the fastest manner, to one of transporting fewer passengers in the most efficient manner. Because of the change of philosophy of the airlines, the Sonic Cruiser project was cancelled in December 2002. The following month, Boeing announced a new aircraft design, the 7E7, which utilized the Sonic Cruiser technology in a more conventional configuration. The shift in emphasis on aircraft size from the large 747 planes to the smaller midsize twinjets also represented a change in the routing of flights from a hub-and-spoke theory to a point-to-point concept. Randy Baseler, Vice President of Boeing Commercial Aircraft Marketing, advocated the idea that airport congestion was the result of large numbers of regional jets and charter aircraft flying to destinations where a large jetliner, such as the Airbus A380 or the Boeing 747 would be too large and inefficient. A focus group organized by Boeing to study the issue arrived at the conclusion that a midsized jetliner with a 20% increase in size could avoid flying through airport hubs with point-to-point transit.
In 2003, the Boeing board of directors supported the need for a new plane to regain market share from Airbus. As a result of this meeting, Boeing senior management directed the design staff to develop a new aircraft at less than 40% of the 777 model costs thirteen years earlier, as well as build the new plane at 60% of the 777 unit costs for that year- an ambitious undertaking. In July 2003 a public naming contest was held for the 7E7, with the winning title Dreamliner. In April 2004, the Japanese airline, All Nippon Airways placed a firm order for 50 aircraft, with the projected delivery date of late 2008. In October 2012, Air India became the first air carrier to take possession of a 787 manufactured out of the Charleston, South Carolina Boeing plant in addition to the first Dreamliner manufactured outside of Washington state. Boeing would use both dedicated plants to produce and deliver the Dreamliner. The 787 was designed to be the first production airliner with the fuselage constructed of one-piece composite barrel sections instead of the multiple aluminum sheets and some 50,000 fasteners used on existing aircraft. The Dreamliner was powered by two new engines, the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 and the General Electric GEnx. Boeing standards for the new aircraft were a twenty per cent increase in fuel efficiency over the 767 model, with nearly forty per cent of the gain from the engines and the remainder from aerodynamic improvements such as the use of light weight composite materials. After extensive wind tunnel tests, the final styling of the 787 was more conservative than earlier proposals, with the fin, nose, and cockpit windows modified to a more conventional form. The Dreamliner was initially priced at a cost of $120 million-a low figure for the aviation industry at the time.
Though in late 2003 Boeing announced the 787 would be assembled in its factory at Everett, Washington, Boeing constructed another plant in 2009 in Charleston, South Carolina from which to produce the aircraft. Boeing also introduced a new concept in aircraft production. Instead of conventionally building the aircraft from the ground up, Boeing assigned global subcontractors to do a portion of the assembly work, delivering completed subassemblies to Boeing for final assembly. This method resulted in a leaner, simpler assembly line and lower inventory. Assembling pre-installed systems reduced assembly time from one to three days, as well as saving the labor of from 800 to 1,200 assemblers at the local plant. The first 787 test aircraft was completed in July 2007 with the ultimate production aircraft possessing a maximum passenger capacity of 440 with a range of 7,600 miles. After passing engine certification and a series of safety tests, the first Dreamliner was delivered to All Nippon Airways in September 2011.
A comparison of the two flagship planes is perhaps more difficult than one would think. Though they are different in a number of respects, they also share a number of similarities. Both aircraft are made from greater than 50% carbon fiber construction. For example, their maximum seating capacity is 440 passengers for both planes. While the Airbus A350 has an extra 10cm cabin space, this is almost inconsequential for passenger comfort. Though the A350 is a bigger aircraft than the 787, the interior cargo space is almost identical. However, in a two-class seating configuration, the A350 can handle more passengers than the 787, even though both planes are rated at a maximum of 440 passengers. In a practical sense, neither aircraft would operate at maximum capacity. The speeds of both aircraft are virtually identical, with the A350 maximum speed at Mach 0.90 and the 787 at Mach 0.89, although the A350 has almost 2,000 miles more range than the 787, due to its fuel capacity of 41,948 gallons, as opposed to 33,384 gallons for the Dreamliner. In take-off length, the A350 can deliver more takeoff thrust and operate from a shorter runway than the 787. To compare both planes on fuel efficiency, the A350 and the 787 were flown on the same route at the maximum range of the Dreamliner. This study (conducted in 2013) showed the 787 having about ten per cent less fuel consumption than the A350, largely due to the lighter weight of the 787. While the Airbus A350 has the Boeing 787 Dreamliner eclipsed in the areas of fuel capacity, range and passenger numbers, much of this relates to the size of the A350. According to the most recent data, the cost per copy of the Boeing 787 is $325.8 million per copy, while that of the Airbus A350 is $366.5 million per copy. Total orders to date place the 787 at nearly 1,500 copies delivered with deliveries of the A350 at 900 copies, though the Boeing plane has been on the market for three more years. In the final analysis, both planes have distinct advantages for different types of routes. If you want a long-range aircraft with the maximum passenger load, then the A350 is the ideal choice. However, if you're flying a shorter route (within seven hrs.), then the 787 is the most economical one. Perhaps the irony of this story is the more these planes compete with each other, the more they appear to complement each other.