Boeing sees little chance that it will have to cut production of the 777 during the transition to the 777X, notwithstanding recent conjecture from analysts that a so-called sales "drought" since the launch of the program during last year's Dubai Air Show could portend a period of market weakness–and a possibility that it won't find enough orders to maintain its 8.3-per-month rate into 2020.
"I don't envision that we're going to have difficulty filling the capacity that we're producing at through the transition to the 777X," John Wojick, Boeing Commercial Airplanes senior vice president of global sales and marketing, told AIN just before the start of the Farnborough show.
By the third week of June Boeing (Chalet B6) was holding firm orders for 283 still undelivered 777-300ERs, representing roughly three years' worth of backlog. "So half of the problem is already solved," said Wojick. "If we continue to see demand like we did last year and continue to see this year...that's the kind of sales momentum we need to fill that skyline and manage the transition to the 777X."
Apart from the huge 777X launch commitments announced in Dubai from three separate customers, Boeing last year collected firm orders for forty-four 777-300ERs. All told, as of mid-June, Boeing had collected firm orders for 394 airplanes.
Wojick said the company wouldn't try to replicate at Farnborough the extraordinary sales feat it achieved in Dubai, notwithstanding positive signals from the market of a likely breakthrough in the widebody category between the time he spoke with AIN in mid-June and the first day of the show.
"We had a tremendous Dubai Air Show," he said. "A lot of that was associated with the airlines wanting to make announcements at the Dubai Air Show and wanting to close business [there] real time. That was just a phenomenal day and a phenomenal situation. We couldn't have planned it if we wanted to. And we're certainly not going to try to do that for Farnborough or Paris or any other air show."
Airbus, conversely, seemed likely to generate a lot of buzz over sales at this year's Farnborough show, judging by the signals it has sent about a healthy sales year in 2014 and the comparatively few orders–roughly 130–it had collected as of mid-June, opined Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of marketing Randy Tinseth. "If you take a look at the other guys, they've talked about how this is going to be a good order year for them," said Tinseth. "I think they have some plans to announce some orders at the show."
Regardless of which company wins the often-contrived airshow orders contest, Boeing continues to assert that deliveries, more than orders, represent the ultimate measure of market success. "My objective is to continue to keep very full, very solid production going forward," said Wojick. "Getting lots of orders is important because obviously it gives you confidence that you can fill that production rate and keep the production growing. But it's really all about deliveries and being able to make sure that the airplanes we've sold actually deliver."
Tinseth stressed that the recent delivery lead taken by Boeing over the last two years reflects the quality of Boeing's backlog, as opposed to the size advantage Airbus enjoys. Even in terms of geographic diversity, neither Tinseth nor Wojick would concede any deficiency compared with Airbus.
"We learned a lot in 2001 about geographic diversity," said Wojick. "We had a tremendous concentration in the United States at the time and it hurt us very badly when most of our large customers in the United States couldn't possibly take the airplanes that they had on order. We did some pretty dramatic things to work through that time... Having a geographically diverse base is very important to us now. We learned that lesson."
In fact, Boeing managed to maintain production rates through the recession that began in 2008 in the U.S. and spread into Europe largely due to strong demand in Asia–demand the company expects will continue to grow faster than in any other region over the next 20 years. Worldwide, passenger traffic continues to grow at a rate of 6 percent a year.
Even the cargo market has rebounded this year to a level that suggests a 4-percent rate of growth. "We see our customers profitable, we see them managing their business, we see diversity in the market...the market's in a good place right now," said Tinseth.
"There's still work to be done [in cargo]. But we've seen now almost a full year of growth in that market. We're starting to see freighter utilization go up, which means that they're using their assets more. There's still a bit of overcapacity in their market; there's no question about that because we have some issues with some yields and revenue for the airlines but we're on the right track again."
A rebound in cargo stands to lighten spirits among 747-8 salespeople, whose undeniable struggles placing the latest version of Boeing's jumbo jet has bred what most in the company would consider uninformed predictions of a premature demise. Still, Boeing's book-to-bill ratio last year nearly reached 1:1, as it sold 17 airplanes to five different customers while producing 18, even in a still weak cargo market, noted Wojick. This year Boeing expects Korean Air and Air China to join Lufthansa on its customer list for the passenger version, the Intercontinental. "The more these airplanes get out and compete, I think the better they'll do," added Tinseth, who said he expected that Intercontinentals eventually would account for roughly 50 percent of the future orderbook.
Wojick confirmed reports that he has talked to Emirates Airline about a potential 747-8 order. "Airbus is talking about re-engining the [A380], and [Emirates CEO] Tim [Clark] is encouraging them," said Wojick. "And the engine they're going to re-engine it with is the engine we already have on the 747-8, so we think that airplane provides the sort of fuel efficiency they're looking for in a re-engined A380."
Just as in the U.S. there is considerable interest in Europe in developing a solution to the sense-and-avoid problem for unmanned aircraft. A number of different programs are running concurrently under different national, international and industrial consortia, and while several have clocked up significant hours of flight test in surrogate or testbed aircraft, none have as yet flown on board an unmanned platform.
The European Defense Agency funds the MIDCAS (mid-air collision avoidance system) project, which began in 2009 and is due to reach completion this year. The 11-member industrial consortium is drawn from five nations (Sweden, Italy, Germany, Spain and France) and is led by Saab, but detail on progress of the €50 million program is scant.
Selex ES (Outdoor Exhibit 1), which is part of MIDCAS, is also involved in another project in the UK in partnership with the company 2Excel Aviation. 2Excel offers plug-and-play flight-test facilities to industry on board two Piper Navajos from its base at Sywell Aerodrome in Northamptonshire.
Over several years, 2Excel has flown the two aircraft on near-collision headings, and has built up an extensive database of information about how far away, and in what conditions, the trained human eye can spot an inbound threat. Then, by linking a number of off-the-shelf EO cameras distributed in forward-facing locations on the airframe, and with an on-board algorithm designed by Selex, subsequent flights have demonstrated that the system is capable of detecting another aircraft on a potential collision course at longer range and earlier than a human pilot. The system, which is called Sense To Avoid, has been demonstrated to the UK's regulator, the CAA, and to a delegation from the FAA. Further test flights are planned for later this year.
Probably the highest profile, and arguably the furthest advanced, European sense-and-avoid program has been conducted as part of the UK's ASTRAEA (autonomous systems technology related airborne evaluation and assessment) program. Although ASTRAEA is not focused solely on sense-and-avoid–the industrial, academic and governmental consortium is looking more broadly at technologies and regulations required to facilitate routine flights of UASs in unrestricted civil airspace–the project has tested a sense-and-avoid system extensively.
Electro-optical sensors have been installed on a BAE Systems-owned and -operated twin-turboprop Jetstream aircraft and, using an algorithm developed by Thales, the ASTRAEA sense-and-avoid system has been flown over the Irish Sea. In keeping with the ASTRAEA methodology, though, the flights did not just test the subsystem, but also looked at how an aircraft equipped with it might be integrated into civilian airspace.
The Jetstream had a pilot on board, who operated the aircraft in takeoff, landing and other selected phases of the flight, and was ready to take over in the event of a communications failure or any other emergency situation. But for extensive periods the aircraft was under the control of BAE test pilot Bob Fraser (who also made the first flight of the company's Taranis UAV last year), who was in a cockpit on the ground.
The flights saw Fraser liaising with air-traffic controllers, including during handovers from one controller to another, and making collision-avoidance maneuvers in much the same way as he would have done had he been on board the aircraft. "The way we've been flying over the Irish Sea is that the system will offer to the man on the ground notification of conflict and suggest an avoiding action," Fraser told delegates to the Royal Aeronautical Society's RPAS Today conference in London last month. "He can either select that or reject it, and if you keep rejecting it, it will get to a minimum closing angle and then take action itself. But it means that if you're in controlled airspace you can reject the initial action, have a chat with ATC, get clearance for that turn and then accept the turn. So it's just a matter of which level of airspace you're in that will dictate what action the pilot on the ground actually takes."
The ASTRAEA program is currently in its third phase (known as ASTRAEA 3A), which is concentrating on regulatory and certification issues. ASTRAEA's program director, Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, told the RAeS conference that an application for funding to the UK government's Aerospace Technology Institute is currently in preparation to facilitate a fourth phase (3B). Under the terms of the ASTRAEA program, half the funding comes from government and the remainder from the industrial partners.
"ASTRAEA 3B will be trying to validate and verify the work we've done to date," Dopping-Hepenstal said. "[3B will be concerned with] continuing the regulation and certification work from 3A, but particularly getting into some significant capability demonstrations and beginning to stretch the points and challenge the use of the technology through a whole series of increasingly challenging flight trials." If funding is approved, ASTRAEA 3B is scheduled to run to 2018.
Airbus Defence and Space Military Aircraft is scheduled to deliver the first of 22 A400M airlifters to the Royal Air Force in September. The delivery of aircraft MSN15 not only will mark the start of operations by a third country, but also represents the introduction of new capabilities as an important step along the type's development roadmap. To get those capabilities into service has necessitated an intensive flight-trial campaign in the first part of this year.
By mid-June Airbus had delivered two A400Ms to the French air force and one to Turkey. Another four French aircraft and one Turkish are in the process of delivery or the final stages of test and assembly. This first batch of aircraft is cleared for a basic logistic mission (initial operational clearance) that allows the aircraft to perform the strategic airlift mission. French aircraft have already been involved in the French intervention in Mali last December, and have transported helicopters to French Guiana in South America.
With the first British aircraft, MSN15, comes an initial tactical operating capability (also known as SOC1), which allows paratroops to jump from either ramp or side doors, and permits the use of the RAS/Wedge aerial delivery system. The latter involves loads being delivered from a special frame that allows them to be carried on the rear loading-ramp and dropped through the upper door. With these clearances in place, the A400M can deliver both paratroops and support equipment in a single drop.
Other elements of the initial tactical capability include combat vehicle offloading and an initial clearance for operations from unpaved runways. There are also some systems improvements, and the aircraft have a tactical communications management system. While the RAF is the first to get new-build aircraft in this configuration, the initial batch of French aircraft is also likely to be brought up to this standard at an early stage.
In order to clear the aircraft for initial tactical capability the Airbus flight-test team has been extremely busy, particularly with air-drop tests. Paratroop test campaigns were conducted in January at Zaragoza, Spain, and in April at Fonsorbes, France, and later in Turkey. Further trials leading up to final qualification with a stick of 58 paratroops are due to be completed before the end of next month.
RAS/Wedge tests were undertaken in February and March at Fonsorbes, clearing the A400M to deliver up to 4 metric tons from the rear ramp using this method. In May a series of air drops was conducted of up to 12 bundles delivered from the paratroop doors to extend the aircraft's capabilities yet further.
Other elements of the requirement were cleared last year, including operations from unpaved runways down to a rating of CBR11, performed at Ablitas in Spain, and combat vehicle offloading that was undertaken at Boscombe Down in the UK. The aircraft was also cleared for the use of night-vision goggles and the enhanced-vision system in both low-level and formation flight.
RAF air and ground crew are already preparing for the arrival of the A400M, with pilots currently in training at the Sevilla-based international training center. In May the UK national training center at Brize Norton was officially opened, although the newly built building was available for use as of March. Designed, built and operated by a joint venture between Airbus and Thales, the UK NTC is scheduled to begin ab initio courses for aircrew from next April.
Several elements are already in place and in use, including the computer-based training and CMOS (cockpit maintenance operating system) maintenance trainer. The loadmaster workstation trainer is undergoing final tests, and the first of two full-motion flight simulators has been installed and is awaiting acceptance. A second simulator is due to be installed in 2016, as well as a cargo-hold trainer.
While the focus of this year's trials was in clearing the initial tactical capability for the RAF, the test team is pursuing an intensive campaign to move the aircraft to what is termed the "2015 configuration" (SOC1.5), due to be introduced in the middle of next year with MSN32. Key elements of this standard include initial air-to-air refueling capability, air drop of loads from the rear ramp, combat offload of pallets and the implementation of the full defensive aids subsystem (DASS). Further capabilities to be added after SOC1.5 in 2016 to 2018 are mostly software-driven changes to the flight management system.
In connection with DASS trials, the flare dispenser system was certified in March after a series of tests culminated in a full flare jettison trial. The radar-warning receiver is scheduled to be approved around the end of the year, for MSN21 or 22, and the missile warning system (MWS) thereafter. A series of background recording missions has been flown in conjunction with the MWS clearance campaign.
For air-to-air refueling the A400M has begun wet contact trials with a Spanish Hornet receiver, Airbus having finalized the wing pod nacelle strake configuration in April. As a receiver, the A400M has undergone more than 60 contacts with a Transall C160 tanker, and has just embarked on a campaign receiving from an RAF A330 Voyager tanker. This fall the A400M will begin a series of air-drop trials with both gravity drops and parachute-extracted drops from the rear ramp, including extracted loads of up to 16 metric tons.
Since the aircraft's first flight on Dec. 11, 2009, the Airbus A400M fleet had racked up 6,343 hours in 2,278 flights by the end of May. MSN1 has been retired, and MSN3 is due to be grounded in October. Although no longer used for tests, it has been retained for a few months to assist with customer training. MSN4 is at the Sevilla-San Pablo site in Spain, while MSNs 2 and 6 are based at Toulouse, France.
Production and Exports
By mid-June Airbus DS had two aircraft in the delivery process (MSNs 10 and 11), with another 13 on the final assembly line at Sevilla-San Pablo. Among them are the first five for the UK (MSNs 15, 16, 17, 20 and 21), the first aircraft for Germany (MSN18), which is due for delivery in November, and the first for Malaysia (MSN22), which is due for January. Beyond those aircraft another 20 were in various stages of production or assembly, and long-lead items were in procurement for a further nine, taking the total to 52. Airbus plans to deliver 11 this year and 22 or 23 next year.
Currently, 174 aircraft are under contract for the seven European launch nations, plus export customer Malaysia. Airbus is currently responding to eight or nine RFI/RFPs and has set itself a target of signing up at least one more export customer by the end of this year, with the ultimate aim of selling 300 to 400 over the next 30 years. Following a visit to the Middle East last year, during which vehicle loading was demonstrated in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the A400M has recently been on a sales tour to Mexico. The aircraft also appeared at the KADEX show at Astana in Kazakhstan.
Lessons learned from early missteps associated with the Boeing Dreamliner's production system have helped cut unit costs on the 787-8 by some 15 percent over the past year and generate a 10-percent flow reduction since December, according to Boeing 787 vice president and deputy general manager Kim Pastega. Now building eight airplanes a month at is main plant in Everett, Washington, and two at its new factory in Charleston, South Carolina, Boeing has also seen a unit cost improvement of 30 percent in the recently certified 787-9 over the first six airplanes built.
Although as of mid-June it delivered only 38 airplanes this year, Boeing expects a gradual acceleration of deliveries during the last six months of the year will allow it to meet its target of 110 airplanes. Much of the reason for the imbalance stemmed from the discovery by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of some hairline cracks inside the carbon fiber wings it builds for the 787, which forced Boeing in early March to perform inspection and repairs on up to 43 airplanes, delaying some deliveries by several weeks.
"As we were ramping up we weren't quite at 10 per month at the beginning of the year, so we have some of that," noted Pastega. "We now have all the MHI [wing] repair behind us, so we're now just delivering those airplanes that were [built] a little bit earlier, and then we'll be accelerating through the Dash 9."
Pastega explained that over the course of the last year Boeing started implementing some structural changes to the factory in Everett to help prepare it for a total production rate of 14 airplanes a month by the end of the decade. Most notably, perhaps, the company has already added a fifth position to the line and split its structures build area into two parts. Now mechanics perform wing-to-body join in what Boeing calls position 1A and circular joins in position 1B.
"It's done a couple of things; it has allowed us to work concurrently on our critical path in our major structures areas," said Pastega. "In any airplane assembly, getting through your major structural joins–be it wings or be it the circular joins–is the bottleneck of the factory. So being efficient there is really a key to long term efficient production."
The separation of jobs has also accelerated learning among the mechanics, said Pastega, allowing not only for the increase to 10 airplanes a month early this year, but for the team performing the circular joins to demonstrate a 20-percent improvement over the time it takes to maintain the current rate.
Since reaching the 10-per-month rate, added Pastega, Boeing has seen 787s leave the final assembly factory at a level of completeness comparable to that of a typical 777–evidence of the stability Boeing has sought ahead of implementation of some of the so-called lean principles it now applies to the 737 and 777.
Meanwhile, as the company prepares for more changes in the transition to the 777X, it will abandon an area near the 787 line where it now engages in 777 aft fuselage production, leaving that space open for 787 parts now located on the surge line. Once complete, that process will result in seven positions on a single line, as Boeing eliminates the surge line "over the next couple of years."