At next week’s Paris Air Show, new jet orders will be trumpeted and the latest aircraft will fly overhead as crowds of aviation-industry insiders watch from the outside decks of corporate hospitality suites.
Yet for both Boeing and archrival Airbus, the main focus right now is back home at their factories. In Paris, their prime agenda will be to assure airlines they can deliver on their huge backlog of orders by churning out aircraft at previously unheard-of rates.
Boeing officials think Airbus could announce it’s raising production of its A320 single-aisle workhorse beyond 60 jets per month in 2018 — a move that would drive Boeing to match its rival by accelerating above the planned 52-per-month pace on the Renton-made 737.
Beyond that, here are some things to look for:
One certainty is Airbus will handily beat Boeing on order announcements.
While Boeing sales chief John Wojick claims not to hoard announcements for the Paris and Farnborough air shows, Airbus super salesman John Leahy“likes big numbers at air shows,” said Adam Pilarski, aviation analyst with consultancy Avitas.
Leahy has been working for some time to finalize a large and long-delayed A330 order from China.
• In a move that has implications for Boeing’s slow-selling 747-8 jumbo jet, Airbus may also trot out a customer for some used A380 superjumbos, a move designed to prove there’s a secondary market for these equally slow-selling giants.
The first A380 entered service with Singapore Airlines eight years ago, but it’s been more than two years since Airbus sold one of the huge double-deckers. Pilarski said Airbus has formed a new internal organization reporting to Leahy to take care of re-marketing the plane so that the elite carriers who operate the 162 now in service can offload the older planes and buy new ones.
“It’s really important for Airbus to do it,” said Pilarski. “The reason the airplane isn’t selling is because there’s no secondary market.”
At this stage, Airbus is ready to offer deals on the basis of “try it and you’ll like it,” Pilarski said.
Turkish Airlines is the most likely taker, a development that might stop the airline from considering Boeing’s 747-8.
United Airlines has also been considering this option for getting a mammoth plane on the cheap, but its management last week publicly tamped down speculation it would be the first U.S. carrier to take the A380.
• Making its air-show debut will be Canada’s much-delayed Bombardier CSeries — an airliner too small and arriving too late to be a challenge to the single-aisle jet families of Airbus and Boeing.
It’s possible the new Airbus single-aisle A320neo will also make its first appearance.
If that jet does join the A380 and the new A350 widebody twinjet in the flying display, it will be a telling rejoinder to Boeing, coming a couple of weeks after the U.S. jet- maker began building the first wings for its answer to the neo, the 737 MAX — which won’t fly for another year.
Boeing’s 787-9 will fly again in the daily aerial display each afternoon in Paris, after wowing the crowd at last year’s Farnborough Air Show near London with a breathtaking touch-and-go maneuver.
That maneuver was banned after Day One at Farnborough as too dangerous, guaranteeing an audience Monday eager to see if Parisian authorities may be more lenient.
In recent weeks, Boeing test pilots have been preparing their flying routine over Moses Lake in Eastern Washington, in the Vietnam Airlines 787-9 that will appear in Paris.
Along with roaring jet-fighter planes and other military hardware, that’s the entertainment in Paris.
In serious meetings at the show, discussion will revolve around how fast Airbus and Boeing can build the nearly 12,000 planes they already have on order.
In pre-Paris tours of its Renton and Everett final-assembly plants, Boeing showed off progress toward its planned production ramp-up.
In Renton, automated wing-panel fastening machines are the latest innovation in a 737 plant that’s being transformed into the most productive airplane factory on the planet.
In Everett, 787 Dreamliner production is finally smooth enough that managers are preparing to carefully wind down the temporary “surge line” that’s operated since 2012. That will mean the entire seven-jets-per-month production is done on the main 787 assembly line.
About 600 mechanics work on each of the two 787 lines. When the surge line closes at the end of the year, probably around 800 workers will staff the accelerated main assembly line, with the rest redeploying to either 777 or 737 production, said Brett VandePutte, director of 787 structures manufacturing.
Just outside the main Everett assembly plant, the foundation of Boeing’s future production is being laid with the construction of two massive new buildings where the wings and fuselage of the 777X will be fabricated using highly automated robotic systems starting in 2018.
So that all the wrinkles can be worked out in advance, some of the new technology is being introduced early to make the fuselage of the current 777-300ER.
“We’ll be building 100 percent robotic fuselages before the 777X comes along,” 777 Vice President Elizabeth Lund said in a briefing.
In the 777 final-assembly line, engineers will also install new tooling capable of holding either the current metal 777 wing, or the longer, carbon-composite 777X wing.
In this tricky transition to the 777X, Boeing acknowledged during the pre-Paris briefings, the 777 production rate will have to temporarily drop from the current rate of 100 jets per year, though by how much is undetermined.
In addition, a sales gap for 777s in the final years of this decade must be filled to avoid any steeper production rate cut.
To bridge that gap, industry analysts say, Boeing is offering big discounts on current-generation 777s. That could shake loose some orders in Paris.
Airbus ‘Future Factory’
Airbus’ plans for production increases look remarkably similar to Boeing’s.
In briefings late last month, Airbus Chief Operating Officer Tom Williams said the jet-maker plans to move beyond its previous method of largely hand-building airplanes because there are limits to “that kind of artisanal approach.”
To reach Airbus’ already announced 2017 target of 50 single-aisle jets per month, Williams added, “You need to build a single-aisle aircraft every six-and-a-half hours.”
A computer simulation of the Airbus “Future Factory” shows automated guided vehicles silently delivering parts to an assembly line as robots lift fuselage panels into place and fasten them together.
For both manufacturers, pursuing automation not only speeds production and fuels this huge production surge but may also, when a downturn eventually follows, provide a way for them to avoid big swings in their workforces.
In the past, to maintain employment in its European factories, Airbus has been very reluctant to ever cut production rates as Boeing has done over past cycles.
By introducing automation and lean production efficiencies, fewer people need be added during the upturn.
Fueling this industrial revolution in both Renton and Toulouse is the battle over the single-aisle-jet market, in which the Airbus A320neo family is well ahead of the Boeing 737 MAX family.
Airbus has a total of almost 3,800 neo orders. Boeing, which launched its jet eight months after Airbus did, has amassed 2,725 MAX orders.
“There’s still a big disparity in favor of the neo,” said Richard Aboulafia, industry analyst with the Teal Group. “There’s no meaningful trend line that would indicate Boeing is catching up.”
Last year, Airbus secured 1,041 neo orders to Boeing’s 891 MAXs. This year so far, Airbus has won 176 neo orders to Boeing’s 62 MAX.
Single-aisle orders in Paris will be scrutinized for any shift in the balance.
Airbus is pushing up production to cement its 60 percent single-aisle market share. Boeing is doing the same to try to catch up.
Yet Aboulafia said this “headlong rush by both sides toward making 60-plus single-aisle jets per month appears very risky and probably unsustainable.”
“It creates an artificial boom based not on demand but on fighting a market-share war,” he said. “It will dump a lot of capacity on the market that guarantees we’ll have some kind of bust later.”
Pilarksi said it’s clear from his conversations with Boeing executives that they truly believe the historical up-and-down cycle of the airplane industry is over for the foreseeable future.
Like Aboulafia, he doesn’t buy it.
“We are either at the peak or very close,” said Pilarksi. “So at this time, building up production rates may not be wise.”
Demand ‘very resilient’
Boeing’s vice president of marketing, Randy Tinseth, rejects such naysayers.
He points to the now 11-year-long upward cycle in the airplane-manufacturing business and to the continued growth of worldwide passenger traffic by more than 6 percent every year.
“Air travel has become very resilient as we’ve seen emerging economies grow and their middle classes grow,” said Tinseth.
Confident of the outlook, both Airbus and Boeing are pressing firmly on the accelerator. The outcome of the race between them depends on how well they manage this massive manufacturing transformation.
In the late 1990s, Boeing’s production system choked and ground to a halt when it tried to raise the pace too fast and suppliers couldn’t keep up.
Both jet-makers are today striving to manage their production systems and supply chains to avoid repeating that disaster.
In Paris, each will project no end to the boom in their business and present these brave new future factories as the way to push production well past all previous limits.