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Special Report: 50th Paris Air Show

Mark Williamson and Mark Venables report from the 50th Paris Air Show, held at Le Bourget in June.

Wide-body wars dominate Boeing-Airbus story

By Mark Williamson

Turbulence during an aircraft flight is both expected and unpredictable, but developments in the airline industry itself tend to follow predictable paths: one manufacturer introduces a new technology or process, then a competitor trumps it with extended range or environmentally-friendly practices. That is, until something goes wrong.When Boeing delivered its first 787 Dreamliner to Japan’s All Nippon Airways in 2011, anti-turbulence technology was but one of its promises. However, it was battery technology that grounded the Dreamliner in January 2013 after lithium-ion units overheated on two of the 49 planes in service. It looked like a marketing gift to rival airframe manufacturer Airbus.

Four months later, the 787 returned to service with battery modifications that limit min/max charge levels and a stainless steel enclosure that adds weight, thereby limiting its original advantages. Then, in early June, a related problem forced Japan Airlines to use an alternative aircraft, apparently because ventilation holes in a newly- modified battery enclosure had been sealed by mistake. Most surprising, however, is that while the Dreamliner is flying again, the US National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the root cause of the first battery fire.

This is not to say that Airbus has been without its own problems: cracks in wing components of the Airbus A380 double-decker were pivotal in reducing a planned 30 orders for 2012 to just nine. In reducing the official target for 2013 to 25, Airbus CFO Harald Wilhelm admitted that production targets might suffer further reduction. That said, it will take Airbus more than five years, building 30 a year, to fulfil the remaining 160 firm orders received for the A380.

As expected, both competitors announced further orders at this year’s Paris Air Show. Boeing received a provisional order for ten 787s from leasing company Gecas (GE Capital), while the long pause in A380 orders was broken by a similarly provisional order for 20 aircraft from another leasor, Doric. The significance of sales to leasing companies is that they allow airlines to trial new aircraft without committing to more than a short-term lease. Indeed, Airbus COO John Leahy characterised the Doric deal as “a breakthrough in marketing the aircraft”.

Both airframers also announced orders for their smaller, single-aisle aircraft, the 737 and A320 among them.

It is the Boeing 787, however, that has made headlines in the past few years, because of its reliance on new technology. A key feature is that about half of its primary structure is made from composites rather than aluminium, a development credited with reducing fuel burn by 20 per cent. It has also allowed higher cabin pressures, which tend to reduce headaches and dehydration, and larger windows with in-built dimming rather than shades. The 787 has been dubbed a “bulb-less aircraft”, because fluorescent lighting has been replaced with LED programmable ‘mood lighting’ to enhance passenger comfort.

Boeing used the show to announce its latest Dreamliner variant, the 787-10, a stretched version sized to carry 300-330 passengers, considerably more than the base model’s 250. Commitments for 102 787-10 aircraft from customers across Europe, Asia and North America were also announced, along with a schedule that foresees flight tests in 2017 and first delivery for 2018. Ray Conner, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said proudly “the 787-10 is 25 per cent more efficient than airplanes of its size today and more than 10 per cent better than anything being offered by the competition for the future”.

That “competition” is also working on a part-composite aircraft, the Airbus A350, which had a perfect maiden flight from Toulouse just before the show. Like the 787, it will be available in three variants with seating for between 270 and 350 passengers. It also boasts a 25 per cent lower fuel consumption. A key difference is the manufacturing method: Airbus is building the A350 a bit like a metal aircraft, using fuselage panels rather than the full barrel method used by Boeing. However, Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier dismissed the notion that Boeing’s technique is more advanced.

As an indication of the pent-up demand for aircraft, the A350 already has 668 orders from 33 customers, including launch customer Qatar. First deliveries are expected at the end of 2014, placing the A350 some three years behind the 787, which has booked 890 orders since its 2011 launch. The time from first flight to service entry will be a record if all goes to plan.

Boeing is already planning to extend its composite wing technology to the established 777 widebody in a familiar attempt to enhance efficiency by saving weight. Although a detailed wing specification has yet to be released, industry observers expect it to be the longest span in Boeing’s history and are even speculating on the necessity for a folding wing-tip, which may worry some passengers. Nevertheless - and despite the 787 battery issues - Boeing chairman Jim McNerney insists that the company “can’t be afraid of technology”.

Global air-passenger traffic has grown by 67 per cent since 2000, indicating a surprising resilience to financial crises and economic recessions. In 2012, net orders for Boeing aircraft totalled 921, while Airbus sold 833 and expects similar this year. Recent years have seen an annual growth of around 5 per cent, which has led to optimistic predictions from both the major plane-makers. For example, Boeing’s Current Market Outlook, released just before the air show, predicts a demand for more than 35,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years, which is equivalent to doubling the world fleet. That should keep the factories busy, not to mention the airport hubs.


Airbus debutante takes the honours

By Mark Venables

For the first four days of the Paris Air Show it was Boeing that ruled the skies with the daily display from the impressive 787, but the US giant had its crown toppled on the last trade day when Airbus’s new A350 XWB made an unexpected fly-past.It was only a few days before the global aviation industry congregated at Le Bourget that the A350 XWB (eXtra Wide Body) took to the skies in its maiden flight - a four-and-a-half-hour trip from its Toulouse base on 14 June. Just a week later the aircraft made a surprise but brief appearance over the skies of Paris, flying along the showground runway before heading back south.

“The A350 XWB is fantastic and impressive. Did you hear how quiet it was? We’re going to set new standards with the A350 XWB - not just for comfort and performance, but for environmental friendliness as well,” enthused John Leahy, Airbus COO - customers.

A total of five aircraft will participate in the A350-900’s 2,500-flight hour test and certification programme in support of this first A350 XWB variant to enter airline service.

The aircraft incorporates a variety of advanced materials from composites in the fuselage, wings and tail, to advanced metals in major components including the landing gear and structural beams.
The use of composites has risen dramatically since the A330; from 11 per cent to 53 per cent. Traditionally, an aircraft’s metallic fuselage is part of its electrical network. As a carbon fuselage is not as conductive Airbus had to develop a new approach, referred to as the electrical structural network.

Advanced metallic materials also have found their place on the A350 XWB, including low-density, high-performance aluminium-lithium alloys that provide increased stiffness and resistance at lower weight in floor beams, frames, ribs and landing gear bays.

So far the company has 678 orders for the aircraft across the three configurations: A350-800 (270 passengers), A350-900 (314 passengers) and A350-1000 (350 passengers).


Green taxiing technology first public showing

By Mark Venables

The Paris Air Show saw the debut of an innovative hybrid system that will let aircraft move on the tarmac under electric power instead of using their main engines. The electric green taxiing system (EGTS) was developed by EGTS International, a joint venture between Honeywell and Safran.The system uses the auxiliary power unit (APU) generator to power electric motors in the main landing gear. Each of the aircraft’s powered wheels is fitted with a control system, giving pilots total control of speed and direction during taxi operations.

The system has the potential to reduce fuel consumption by up to 4 per cent on a short-haul flight. Aside from the financial benefits there are environmental advantages with reduced carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions during taxi operations as well as lower noise levels, an important consideration at urban airports.

Much as a hybrid car uses electrical power at low speeds, the technology enables aircraft to avoid using their main engines during taxiing and instead move autonomously under their own electrical power.

Because an aircraft’s main engines are optimised for flying rather than taxiing, they burn a disproportionate amount of fuel during ground operations. With a short-or medium-range aircraft spending up to 2.5 hours of its time on taxiways every day, EGTS could save approximately 600kg a day of fuel used during taxiing, according to Honeywell and Safran estimates.

“EGTS is a revolutionary system that brings immediate benefits for a pilot operating in congested airports,” Safran test pilot Jens Berlinson explained. “In addition to faster push-back times, being fully autonomous with its reverse mode, the system is very smooth and so easy to operate, enabling the plane to accelerate without any delay, and move at a steady rate.

“With EGTS we no longer need to use the brakes, unlike with today’s aircraft that have a tendency to accelerate naturally even when the engines are at idle. This is especially valuable in busy airports, where planes are often queuing up for an extended period of time before take-off.”

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