On 14 October Airbus celebrated the historic milestone of the delivery of its 10,000th airliner - an A350-900 for Singapore Airlines. TIM ROBINSON looks back on the lessons for other would-be entrants aiming to break into the airliner duopoly.

It was highly appropriate that at a glitzy ceremony on 14 October in Toulouse, France, the airline that took delivery of Airbus’s 10,000th airliner – a milestone 42 years in the making – was its valued long-term customer Singapore Airlines (launch customer for the A380 back in 2007). This particular A350-900 is the sixth delivery to the airline in 2016 after it received the first of 67 in March – leading to SIA chief Goh Choon Phong to quip that he: “didn’t expect to be back [in Toulouse] so soon.”

Singapore Airlines has already put the specially-marked A350 into service on its new non-stop Singapore-San Francisco service. It is also looking forward to putting the ultra-long range A350-900ULR variant (seven of which it has on order) into service in 2018 on its highly anticipated Singapore-New York and Los Angeles direct routes.

The handover event, which saw airline guests, Airbus veterans and media mark this milestone, was perhaps a good occasion to ponder – how did Airbus get here in the first place?


A model for successful European integration

Where it all began - the first A300B2 delivered to Air France in 1974. (Airbus)

Airbus as a European (and now global) enterprise has long roots – but can be traced back to the failures of individual national aerospace industries, primarily in the UK and France, to regain the lost lead in civil aviation they enjoyed prior to WW2. Civil airliners such as the VC10 (54 built), BAC One-Eleven (244), Caravelle (282) Dassault Mecure (12) and VFW-Fokker 614 (19) failed to match US competitors such as the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (386) Lockheed L-1011 (250) and Boeing 727 (1,832). Co-operation – first in Concorde and military aviation projects showed a way where Europe could pool its industrial resources to produce an airliner that could make a significant breakthrough into mass market global sales.

Indeed, the Anglo-French co-operation in Concorde makes an interesting what-if case of alternate aviation history. If supersonic passenger travel had taken off in the way in which it was originally predicted (MoUs were signed for over 100 aircraft from airlines of the day), would Airbus partners have had their hands full producing SSTs and follow-on designs?


Introducing the widebody

An Airbus Industrie marketing brochure for the A300B in 1974 highlighted the cabin space.

But even before the 1970s, the then Airbus partners were thinking about a new airliner. The first one was the A300 – which would break new ground in being a twin-aisle widebody, powered by only two engines – at a time when its competitors had either four or three. Reliability of powerplants had not yet reached the levels that airlines enjoy today – which meant that many were suspicious of a large airliner powered by only two engines – especially from an unknown European consortium with a history of poor-selling airliners.

An Airbus Industries market analysis from May 1969 predicted a world total market potential of around 1,000 aircraft by 1980, and that of these, the A300B could capture 50 sales in 1975 and about 150 in 1980. Particularly important for the A300B, notes the study, was the growth of European non-scheduled operators, or charter airlines, in the second half of the 1970s, as the package holiday boom took off.

Interestingly, as well as European holidaymakers, an Airbus A300B marketing brochure from five years later, in 1974, also pointed to the growing European IT market as driving passenger growth.

Oddly, the A300B almost had free rein as a widebody twin until Boeing launched the 767 in 1982. A RAeS Lecture ‘Co-operation in European Aerospace – The A300B widebody twin’ given by Programme Director Roger Béteille in March 1973 noted that “the DC-10 is already produced in three different versions with the possibility of a twin-engine version to come.” What then, might have happened had Lockheed or McDonnell Douglas quickly moved to produce twin-jet versions of their tri-jets?

Could the BAC Three-Eleven have ended up splitting orders between it and the A300? (RAeS/NAL)

Ironically the closest rival to the A300B was perhaps from Britain with BAC’s (who unlike Hawker Siddeley was not an Airbus Industries partner) Three-Eleven – a scaled up T-tail twin jet widebody concept which was showcased at the Paris Air Show in 1967/1969 and had disappeared by 1971. Had this rival widebody gone ahead and split any orders and sales, says Professor Keith Hayward wryly: “It would have torpedoed both UK and European aviation industries”.

First delivered to Air France in May 1974, Airbus finally went on to deliver 561 A300s - a quantum leap in sales compared to previous efforts – and the A310 following suit. However, it was a slow process with a gap of 12 years between the first flights of the A300 and A310. Observed Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders at the delivery “In the 1970s we were producing at a rate of half an aircraft a month.”

It thus took 19 years for the consortium to reach 1,000 deliveries (an A340 delivered to Air France in 1993. Yet, the last 1,000 airliners delivered, incredibly only took 19 months from the 9,000th – an A321 delivered to VietJetAir in 2015.

After the A310, followed the, A320, A340 and A330 (ironically at the time it was the four-engined A340 that was seen as the flagship product, whereas today the A330 has won new sales and is getting a revamp with the A330neo). Finally, there was the four-engined A380 ‘super jumbo’ and today's A350.


Lessons

Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders at the glittering handover ceremony - the company will deliver its next 10,000 airliners in just 10 years he said.

So what lessons can we draw from Airbus’ experience in taking on the dominant US civil aerospace industry – seeing off two major competitors in civil aviation (Lockheed withdrawing and McDonnell Douglas merging with Boeing)?

This week, all eyes have been on Zhuhai air show in China – both paradoxically Airbus and Boeing’s potentially biggest market and their most likely future competitor – among other countries developing smaller jets such as Brazil and Japan. Bombardier, meanwhile, has struggled to secure sales for its CSeries. Can China or any of these other new entrants, repeat this success story?

The first lesson – is that it takes time. As Tom Enders notes, it took 19 years to pass the 1,000 delivery mark. This then requires deep pockets and/or some sort of government support. If we take the ARJ21 as the starting point for AVIC (302 orders so far) it entered service in 2016. Therefore, it could conceivably be 20 years or 2036 before AVIC reaches the 1,000 delivery mark (COMACs C919 has 517 orders – so it could reach that earlier, but it has yet to fly).

However, even if China builds on western expertise, it will still take time. Trust will have to be earned and it is in the aftermarket support and services where the biggest challenges to any new entrants to airliner business are. Forging the kind of global supplier, services and training network that will allow an airline with an aircraft on the ground (AOG) anywhere from Argentina to Zambia to pick up a phone and get an assured 24/7 response may take decades. For this reason, China’s AVIC is likely to concentrate on its home market first.

Price is obviously another discriminator – and an attractive one for a new entrant hoping to win initial customers through some ‘too-good-to-resist’ deals, but today there are fewer and fewer airlines that would be willing to risk a bargain basement deal unless there was some level of guaranteed customer support afterwards. Unlike military aircraft, airliners fly much more often and today’s manufacturers target levels of dispatch reliability of above 98% for new models and over 99% for mature aircraft.


Innovating to leap ahead

Can Russia and China's widebody C929 challenge the Airbus/Boeing duopoly? (OAC)

The second lesson from Airbus is that it had to innovate further and push the technology farther rather than offer a ‘me-too’ product. It is debatable, for instance, if it had launched a tri-jet in the age of the L-1011, DC-10 and 727 whether it would have had the same impact as the world’s first widebody twin in the A300. By losing the third engine, it immediately offered fuel efficiencies.

In the A320 too, the world’s first fly-by-wire (FBW) airliner, Airbus pushed the frontiers of flight. Today the single-aisle A320 is its ‘bread and butter’ product with over 7,200 built and the revamped neo flying off the shelves. Yet marketing it initially was an uphill struggle and Airbus faced fierce resistance from pilots’ unions concerned about this then unproven (FBW) technology – especially when the company suffered a high-profile crash at an airshow in Germany in 1988. Today, FBW is taken as standard and available on smaller and smaller jets – but then its safety advantages were still unknown. The reputation of Airbus as having ‘computers in charge’ is one that still echoes today – especially after incidents such as AF447. Yet despite well-publicised incidents, fatal aviation accidents remain rare and have not kept pace with the massive growth in air travel. Thus ongoing innovation such as two-crew flightdecks, increased use of composites, FBW, common crew ratings and ETOPS allowed Airbus to differentiate itself from the established competition and win market share.

Conversely, it is noticeable that the one time that Airbus felt it needed a ‘me too’ product to compete with Boeing’s flagship 747, it has come unstuck – with the A380 arriving just at the time when twin widebodies such as the 777/787 and A330/A350 are carrying more passengers and becoming more efficient.

So in China’s case, if the ARJ21 can be seen a test project to learn the ins and outs of airliner development and certification, COMAC’s C919 perhaps is still too much of a ‘me- too’ A320-alike to make sufficient inroads outside of Chinese airlines (although both Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and IAG’s, Willie Walsh, have flirted with COMAC).

All eyes now, therefore, will be on the C929 – a joint Sino-Russian widebody. Partnering Chinese resources with Russian know-how in aerodynamics could make for a dream team to challenge Airbus and Boeing – but the question remains – in order to convince airlines, what fresh innovation in terms of efficiencies, safety improvements or cabin comfort will this bring?


Listen to the market - carefully

The A350 became a clean-sheet design after the original A330 revamp failed to impress customers. (Airbus)

The final lesson might be - listen to the market, but listen carefully. For instance, Airbus’ first pass at the A350, a made-over A330, resulted in a lukewarm reception from potential customers leading to a complete redesign and the current A350XWB. Faced with the decision of ploughing ahead with a clean-sheet new single-aisle airliner or revamping the existing A320 with promising new engines from P&W and CFM, Airbus wisely chose the re-engining option – producing its best-ever selling airliner in the A320neo. While in hindsight this decision seems obvious, (next generation engines such as open-rotors seem to be still 10-15 years away) at the time there was pressure for radically efficient airliners to cope with soaring prices as the world faced ‘peak oil’. The key lesson here, then, is ‘what are your customers really telling you’?


Deep pockets

Airliner manufacturing is a complex, long-term business. (Airbus)

Finally, while allegations over state aid and subsidies continue to fly across the Atlantic, there is no doubt that developing a hugely complex and highly expensive product like a new large airliner requires some sort of Government political support – whether it comes in the form of launch aid, tax breaks, investment incentives, military R&D spin-offs or pressure on national flag carriers to buy a product from the ‘home team’.

While Boeing has fumed about this and it continues to be a live issue, Airbus has benefited from the fact that as a pan-European entity is has been able to draw on support (whether economic or political) from multiple governments. While sometimes this has proved to be more of a hindrance in political meddling it has however meant that Airbus was less likely to have been abandoned in its early years than if it only had been a single nation's project.

The lesson here is that airliner manufacturing is a high-stakes game with a high entry fee. (As is aero engines too – witness China establishing a new $7.5bn jet engine manufacturer this year to catch-up in this critical area where it is still dependent on foreign technology).

Yet if governments supporting aerospace (one way or the other) as national strategic industrial assets can be expected - it is only part of the story. Russia, for example, despite state-backing and a formidable military aviation sector, has struggled to compete in civil aerospace. Today, only 29 of Aeroflot's 180-strong fleet are Russian-built Superjet 100s - the rest are Western Airbus and Boeing designs. Political backing or investment may be important, but if the product is not commercially attractive in the first place, success is unlikely.

 

Summary


Snog, Marry, Avoid? - Who would have predicted in the late 1960s and early 1970s it would be the A300 that would still be in service today? (RAeS/NAL)

Today Airbus delivers more than 600 aircraft a year and sits on a decade worth of backlog of 6,749 airliners – a far cry from the 1970s where it believed that in 1980 it could sell around 150 A300Bs. Indeed, says Professor Hayward, the A300B, where the story began, was “only ranked third” in French industrial planning after Concorde and the Caravelle. In a game of ‘Marry, Snog, Avoid’ of 70s European airliners, it was thus the frumpy A300B (and follow-on aircraft) who the airlines ended up marrying, despite a brief dalliance with glamourpuss Concorde. The poor Caravelle, meanwhile was left (metaphorically speaking) on the shelf. Once it was obvious, though, that Concorde and the Caravelle were not going to be big sales successes – support was swiftly switched to the A300B.

Thus, while the history of Airbus is tied to Franco-German political determination to rebuild their aircraft industries (and some canny commercial dealing by Britain’s Hawker Siddeley), Airbus is now throwing off its state-backed shackles and past as a European job creation scheme to embrace a global, more Silicon Valley-style future of digitisation, innovation and collaboration.

Indeed, it is perhaps the ultimate irony that Airbus - as a model of successful European co-operation has reached this milestone of 10,000 deliveries just when Europe itself seems to be fracturing at the seams.

Can others emulate its (and Boeing’s) success in airliners? In the long-term yes – but it has been a long struggle for Airbus to get where it is - and its success was far from assured. This makes it all the more remarkable that a European company has produced over 10,000 airliners – when previously Europe’s biggest selling jet airliner failed to get past even 500.

Tim Robinson
4 November 2016