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Paris Air Show Recap: Airbus A350 vs Boeing 787 Dreamliner

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This week’s Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport saw the rivalry between Boeing and Airbus – an engineering battle that will determine the size and configuration of aircraft all of us will fly in the future – flare anew after Airbus dramatically staged the maiden voyage of its new A350 airplane. Made with lightweight carbon composites, the A350 targets Boeing’s 777 and the 787 Dreamliner, which resumed full service in May after being grounded temporarily for lithium-ion battery problems.

It would have been hard for Airbus to find a bigger stage. Organizers in Paris say they expect Le Bourget’s chalets and exhibition halls will be filled with more than 2,200 companies from more than 40 countries. As many as 350,000 visitors from the aerospace industry, as well as the public, are expected by the time the show ends June 23.

Airbus is pinning its hopes on the fuel-efficient A350 to compete in the long-haul sector where it still lags behind Boeing. The A350 can fly up to 10,300 miles and carry 250-400 passengers. But the European-built planes also cost about $254-$332 million each, compared with $206-$243 million for a Dreamliner, which is also made from plastic composites reinforced with carbon threads.

Airbus A350 at Paris Airshow

The airlines themselves must decide whether to buy the quieter A350 or the more fuel efficient Dreamliner. Boeing CEO James McNerny thinks his company has the advantage. He says the Dreamliner’s high-tech batteries no longer overheat and that production is not behind schedule since assembly lines kept operating during the battery retrofitting process.

To buttress its lead in sales Boeing followed the arrival of the A350 with a new product of its own, a stretch version of the 787 Dreamliner. The new Dreamliner, called the 787-10, has a flying range from 7,650-8,200 nautical miles and will seat 210-250 passengers.  Construction is scheduled to begin in 2017. Boeing stressed its new plane’s fuel-efficiency. Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Ray Conner said:

“The 787-10 is 25 percent more efficient than airplanes of its size today and more than 10 percent better than anything being offered by the competition for the future.”

Airbus A380

In introducing the A350 Airbus is hedging its bet on the A380, the two-tier superjumbo the company once touted as the future of commercial aviation. Built to carry 800 passengers, the A380 is a long-haul carrier with a conventional aluminum airframe designed to fly vast distances between hub cities. The A380 offers curtained suites in first class and a lounge in coach that allows passengers to have a drink away from their seat.

Airbus marketed the plane based on the assumption that travelers wanted more space if they were flying from Sydney to Dubai or from Seattle to Johannesburg. Boeing countered that passengers probably wanted a smaller plane that avoided the hub connection by flying direct to the destination city. Travelers taking a 777, for example, also could avoid going through customs and baggage claim with 800 fellow travelers.

So far, it looks as if passengers agree with Boeing. Airbus had projected sales of 30 A380s in 2012 but ended up moving only nine. Recently, Airbus signed a provisional contract with a European leasing company for the sale of 20 A380s collectively worth $8.1 billion. But even if the sale goes through the A380 still will be a money loser for Airbus.

More than a few airports are anxious when it comes to the fate of the A380 superjumbo. This weekend Los Angeles International Airport will reopen a newly renovated Tom Bradley International Terminal. Nine of the 18 new gates are built to accommodate the A380. The question remains, however, whether LA’s $2 billion investment in “the future of commercial aviation” will be justified by passenger demand for the superjumbos.

Most airlines are augmenting their fleets with a combination of A350s and Boeing 787-10s. United Airlines, for example, has an order in for 25 Airbus A350s. But in Paris this week it ordered 10 new 787-10s and converted a previous order for 10 existing Dreamliner into an order for 10 of the new stretch version.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ marketing vice-president Randy Tinseth says his company is positioned to maintain its lead in the wide-body international market.

“We studied this segment and there are certain markets that need big airplanes, so that’s why we improved our 747-8 aircraft. We invested the right amount of technology and we made the right investment for us to make sure that we had a product that would be successful in the market place. Airbus had a different view of the market. They launched their airplane in 2000, they said they’d be 1,225 A380 products in a 20-year period, and their estimates are just flat wrong. The airplane isn’t performing that well, they made a huge investment to capture a very small market.”

Of course, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner had a fairly shaky beginning. There are no indications that Airbus’ new A350 will be anything but a commercial success. So what airplane will we take for vacation in 2018? The only certainty at this point is that for an international trip the plane probably will be made of lightweight composite materials.

For more reports on the Dreamliner, check out:

By David DeVoss for David DeVoss is the Editor and Senior Correspondent for the East-West News Service in Los Angeles.

A350 picture credit: Wikimedia user, Don-vip