Saturday, July 07, 2007

Through The Looking Glass With Business Week

Business Week published a piece this week ('Airbus Bides its Time in Boeing Battle') on the subject of composite aircraft that makes me think they've got a direct line to da Festung for propaganda.

If this is what passes for critical analysis over at BW these days, that flopping sound you hear is Rod Craib rolling over in his grave at about 700 rpm or so. Rod was the transportation editor at Business Week some years ago and it was my privilege to be his student at Rutgers one semester and to know him personally. He was not one for puff pieces like this seems to be.

It starts with a recap of the much ballyhooed "Airbus is back!" message put out at the Paris Air Show and it suggests that the A350 is a 'credible competitor' that is set to thrash the B777-200, largely based on the spate of 'orders' that were garnered there.

Well. I thought it was competing with the B787. I could be wrong, but I don't think so. Help me out here.

Then we have 'clear signs that Boeing and its suppliers are struggling' and dark hints of program delays.

Next we have Ole Swampgas himself, John Leahy, opining that if he loses the first 600 orders to Boeing, "so what?" because the market is so huge anyway. Is his company able to give away 600 orders and say "so what?" about it? I think not.

Then he states that 'nine abreast in our aircraft will be very comfortable in our aircraft and marginal in theirs, and we'll carry more cargo to boot and yield 4-5 per cent better fuel economy.'

OK. So, it's competing with the B787-right? And that five inch dimensional difference between fuselages (0.55 inches per seat) means the difference between very comfortable and marginal?

But what about cabin width? The A350 is 18 ft 4 in, and the B787 is 18 ft 9 in. So who's going to be marginal? And what about the noncompetitor B777? It's 19 ft 3 in. Does that mean even more comfortable?

But then we have Scott Hamilton saying that the A350 blew the B777 out of the water in orders at the air show.

Well, of course it did, assuming that you buy into the fiction that these are real world orders that will actually be delivered and assuming that they're all new orders that didn't exist beforehand.

The A350 program has been around since 2005. In that time Airbus has captured around 160 orders give or take, depending on how you parse their 'announcements'. In that same period the B777 program has received 290 orders and delivered 143 aircraft.

But that's not the competitor-or is it?

When you sort through all the spin, the message is that Airbus is trying to position the A350-900 and 1000 as competitors to the B777-200 and -300, set to arrive when the B777 is getting a little bit out of date.

Does that mean they realize that the battle for the B787-300 slot is already lost?

And there's that small problem, a mere bagatelle, really, of product definition.

Until Airbus freezes the design and starts cutting metal, they can pretty much say the A350 is anything the customer wants it to be.

While we're on the subject of small problems, we have that problem of dates. The A350 is not slated to fly until 2012, and that's if there are no program delays or 'wiring problems'. By 2012, the B777 program will probably deliver another 300 or so aircraft depending on the demand and the order book, and the B787 will have been in series production for four years.

So if the A350 is competing with the B787, they're spotting Boeing at least 4, maybe 5 years head start. If it's competing with the B777, well, that looks more like a 15 year head start.

I'm thoroughly confused. What segment of the market is it competing with and how is that going to happen? You can't just say "It's better than a B787, and that's why it's a competitor to the B777."

And if you suspend disbelief long enough, you also have to believe that Boeing is going to sit on their butts, do the Rip van Winkle, send the engineers packing, and be there with the same exact product five years hence without a single improvement made.

There's an awful lot of wishful thinking that's passing for the unvarnished truth with the bark still on it these days.

Or maybe it's more like what Mother used to call 'whistling past the graveyard.'

I am reminded of nothing so much as the words of Lewis Carroll in Through The Looking Glass :

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'


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