An Update From Paris: Airbus Puts Lipstick on Its A380 While Boeing Keeps Stretching Its 737

This week is the Paris Air Show, the pinnacle of the air show circuit (alternating with Farnborough every other year). It’s usually an opportunity for aircraft manufacturers to shine by revealing a slew of orders along with future development plans. This year, those order books are somewhat lighter, especially on the widebody side. So it’s the future development that’s been making the most news.

The A380plus

Airbus is making waves on the bigger end of the spectrum with a package of improvements to try to salvage the A380 as a viable aircraft going forward. Orders for the A380 have been anemic since the beginning, at best, with only Emirates preventing a complete and total financial disaster for the company. Of the 317 ordered, Emirates is responsible for 142 of them. And though there are still 100 airplanes left to be delivered, many of those seem to be on shaky ground. There hasn’t been a new order since 2015 and the production line is being slowed to stretch it out as much as possible.

With that backdrop, doesn’t it sound like the end is near? Nobody would have faulted Airbus for calling it quits, except maybe for Emirates, but Airbus has chosen a different path. It’s as if it looked at the airplane, figured out a few cheap tweaks it could make, and then decided to give it one more push before raising the the white flag. With that “winning” recipe in place, we now have a plan for the A380plus. There’s no commitment to actually building it right now, but with these changes, Airbus hopes it can get enough airlines onboard to get the program off life support. It’s a twist on the old saying… if they come, Airbus will build it.

So what is this upgrade? It’s really just a combination of two things. First, there are new fancy-looking winglets along with “wing refinements” that result in a 4 percent fuel burn savings. Then there are the interior changes that were released earlier this year which effectively allow Airbus to stuff more passengers in the airplane. The bottom deck will see room for 11 seats across in coach (think 3-5-3) instead of 10. These two things mashed together result in a 13 percent reduction in cost per seat, depending upon configuration, of course.

Lower cost is always nice, but that’s never been the main problem with the airplane. It’s just too big. Now Airbus is effectively making it bigger (in terms of capacity), so how is that going to be more attractive? It won’t.

Those who already believe in the airplane may like this, and maybe it will convince some of the less firm orders to stick around. But I find it hard to believe it’s going to sway any new airlines to place an order. I can’t recall anyone saying, “gee, if only it could hold 80 more people, then we’d be interested.”

For what it’s worth, Airbus’s main A380 customer, Emirates, isn’t impressed. It will undoubtedly change its tune quickly if a rush of new orders comes in making it a more sustainable aircraft in the future, but that seems unlikely to happen with this enhancement alone.

The 737 MAX 10

Boeing has started talking more about a “middle of the market” aircraft to fall between the 737 and 787 families, but despite some buzz this week, we’re not there yet. Instead, the biggest tangible news was about Boeing following a time-honored tradition of stretching the crap out of its 737 family. Boeing officially rolled out the 737 MAX 10, the 10th and biggest iteration of the 50-year old aircraft.

It’s incredible to think that this airplane is nearly double the size of the old 737-100 in terms of passenger capacity. It’s hard to believe these airplanes are even related, but sure enough, that old fuselage cross-section is the same, as are many other characteristics. Oh sure, plenty is different, as you’d hope considering it’s been 50 years, but it’s still just Boeing being Boeing (or Boeing being McDonnell Douglas) and trying to tweak an existing airplane as much as humanly possible to serve every need.

What need does this serve besides providing a long racetrack for toilet paper rolling down the aisle? Well it’s suppose to be Boeing’s competitor to the A321neo. They have roughly the same number of seats and, according to Boeing, the MAX 10 will have a 5 percent lower operating cost per seat than the A321neo. There’s a lot of sniping back and forth about which will have more range, but the bottom line is that if you need the range, the Airbus A321LR will win. That’s the closest thing we have to a 757 replacement today, though it’s been very hard to find anything to replace the 757.

After just a few days, the 737 MAX 10 has hundreds of orders, but don’t let the marketing fluff fool you. Many of those are just converted orders that were previously for a different version of the airplane. United, for example, made a splash by converting 100 orders for the 737 MAX 9 into orders for the MAX 10 instead.

— The common thread here is that there really wasn’t anything overly exciting. Airbus is trying to revive its giant while Boeing is just trying to fill out its product line with another stretch of an already overly-stretched airplane. The more exciting discussion is about what the future may hold for a new clean-sheet aircraft, especially in that middle-of-the-market size. But despite the hype, there’s really very little to discuss… yet.


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