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Questions raised by American’s big order

Post by John Gillie / The News Tribune on July 20, 2011 at 9:11 am with No Comments »
July 20, 2011 9:13 am

American’s announcement early this morning of a huge single-aisle aircraft order split between Boeing and Airbus certainly ended much uncertainty that had hovered over the industry in recent weeks.

But the new order raised other questions for both aircraft makers that will have to be answered in the coming months.

* Where will these planes be built? Both aircraft makers have been racing to increase their production. Airbus has announced plans to increase to 44 a month for its A320 family. Boeing has announced a plan to go to 42 a month from 31.5 now.

But the American order is for 460 aircraft alone without options. That’s a whole year’s production for either planemaker who have been saying they’re sold out or nearly sold out with other orders. Where will they build these planes while keeping other airlines happy?

Boeing Commercial President Jim Albaugh recently talked about raising production to 60 a month. Boeing could move that direction if the third production line at Boeing’s sole 737 plant at Renton begins producing both military versions of the 737 as it does now and commercial versions.

But would Boeing consider expanding the Renton plant or even — God, forbid for local boosters — establish yet another aircraft assembly line outside of the Puget Sound area.

Boeing could opt to build another plant either in some Southern, non-union state for the re-engined 737 or for the militarized versions of the plane.

Airbus could dust off its plans to build a plant in Mobile, Ala. to establish a beachhead in the U.S. Airbus would have built that plant to build Airbus airborne tankers and freighters had it won the U.S. Air Force contract for those tankers. Airbus CEO Tom Enders today was noncommital on that prospect.

The American order isn’t the only one that’s been waiting in the wings. Delta needs hundreds of new planes. If it follows American’s example and splits the order (it now flies both A320s and 737s) the production pressure could be amped up.

* How will Boeing accommodate the larger diameter CFM Leap-X under the wing of the 737? The 737 sits relatively low to the runway now, so much so that when the plane’s second generation debuted, its engines were noticeably squared on the bottom to improve clearance.

The Leap-X will be at least 8 inches bigger in diameter than the present generation of engines. Boeing has talked about lengthening the plane’s nose gear, but doing so could introduce complication into the redesign.

* Will other Boeing customers now leap on the bandwagon. None of them want to be at a disadvantage to American in fuel economy. Will Southwest, which has been agitating for more fuel-efficient planes, now enter a big order for re-engined 737s? Delta? Will existing customers like Alaska convert some future orders to the re-engined aircraft.

For Boeing the decision to move forward with a re-engined plane is both a relief and a disappointment.

It’s a relief because Boeing’s overtaxed engineering workforce has plenty of work to do. Taking a new single-aisle plane off the table will allow it to move forward with the stretched 787-10 Dreamliner and a highly modified or new 777.

It’s a disappointment because Boeing had hoped to gain a leg up on Airbus by surpassing the re-engined A320NEO with an all-new plane.

Now, its a year late to the re-engined single-aisle party and Airbus in the meanwhile has won hundreds of orders, some of which might have been Boeing’s if the company had a competitive plane to offer.

The Boeing decision to put new engines on the 737 delays for at least a decade the debut of an all-new single-aisle plane. Perhaps that’s a blessing. It will allow the critical assembly and production issues with composites to be solved. It will reduce the demand on the companies for research and development funding and it will allow infant technologies to mature.

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