THE HIDDEN CONSEQUENCES OF THE DREAMLINER FIASCO
The global aviation fraternity took a deep breath last week and then must have muttered a combined worldwide finally as Boeing prepared to hand over the first B787 Dreamliner going into commercial service to Japans ANA. Passengers of ANA will look forward to the improved inflight comfort like larger windows, more acceptable cabin pressure and moisture levels and audibly reduced noise as a result of new engine and construction technology applied in this aircraft and the finance managers will keenly eye the operational savings the aircraft specs promised.
Delayed by well over 3 years, with denials by Boeing chasing confirmation of yet another delay before denials took over again to keep that faithshattering cycle going for far too long, the aviation worlds latest baby in the sky is finally reality, in Japan at least for the time being. Elsewhere, delays will rule the discussions between airline chiefs and Boeing for some more time, as a number of already produced aircraft first need to be fixed up, a costly and time consuming undertaking which takes a lot longer than taking care of the final modifications required as a result of flight testing revelations, than incorporating them in new aircraft going on the production line.
While a number of top managers lost their jobs at Boeing over this longest ever delay in the delivery of a brand new aircraft to the launch customer, the financial fallout will be with the company for years to come and there is intense speculation over the number of B787 which need selling before the programme will reach the profit threshold. Some analysts have openly suggested it might take a decade and up to 1.000 aircraft to achieve this, not a problem per se as well over 800 have already been sold. The promised inflight performance improvements over the currently used B767 and B777 will be monitored by many airlines and aircraft leasing companies before, undoubtedly, Boeing will bag plenty of more orders, for certain pushing the bottom line eventually into the black but until then the company will suffer the consequences of customers extracting from them price concessions and many a bagful of other goodies especially by those customers who were urgently trying to upgrade from the aged B767s to the much more economical B787s.
Airbus had challenges of its own before putting their sky giant A380 Double Decker into service and the aviation fraternity is now turning its full attention to the A350 to see if similar issues will be dogging that brand new aircraft, developed as Airbus answer to Boeings B787. At Airbus as well as at Boeing the domination by the engineers had to give way to the beancounters taking charge when the global economic and financial crisis hit home, for many aviation observers a lamentable situation and a certain recipe to have aviation technology stagnate for as much as a decade if not longer. Why? When the Dreamliner and the A350XWB go into service the two leading aircraft manufacturers will first sit back, take a deep breath and then attempt to generate financial returns to assure investors of improved short term dividends, rather than giving their think tanks card blanche to develop the next generation of long haul and short haul aircraft. Evidence towards that is the half hearted attempt by Airbus and Boeing to improve performance with the A320Neo and the performance enhanced Future Generation B737, rather than seeking groundbreaking new solutions, new materials and newer technology for a totally and really new single aisle aircraft.
Yet the moment is now, considering the time it takes from turning a bright idea into an aircraft that can not only safely fly but also produce the financial savings over a long life span of being operated. This will become especially acute when considering the drying up of conventional fuels over the next decades, making the remaining crude oil reserves almost too precious to burn in automobiles and aircraft for that matter. New engine technology and propulsion systems will be needed, as the current trend towards bio fuels will increasingly clash with the need to feed an exploding world population. When fuels get truly scarce in two or three decades, those state of the art power plants must be tested and ready to take flight under the wings of aircrafts criss crossing the skies above us, and considering the time this takes, it should be now that engineers are let loose to dream up those new technologies and designers equally let loose to create the types of aircraft needed then.
Considering that the life span of todays aircraft delivered from the manufacturers can easily reach 40+ years, as long as they are properly maintained, that will be the timeline the world is looking at to have a revolutionary new design taking flight. For now however, the beancounters, scared by the more than threefold cost overruns for the B787 Dreamliner and the potential problems still ahead for the A350XWB will see that as reason enough to in turn scare their shareholders with doomsday prognosis of lower dividends, very likely delaying new initiatives and tech dreams by engineers and designers for far too long for my comfort. Fodder for thought this is, plenty in fact.