Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "Dreamliner vs. Superjumbo"

Now that Airbus’ new A380 has finally started crisscrossing the world’s already busy skies, all eyes are on Boeing’s response to the European plane-maker’s much-hyped Superjumbo. Contrary to expectations, Boeing has opted for a mid-sized, wide-body jetliner carrying between 210 and 330 passengers (as opposed to the colossal A380 that seats up to 853). The twin-engine B787 may be dwarfed by the A380 in size, but is revolutionary in other aspects. In addition to new-generation engines and avionics, the B787, nicknamed Dreamliner, is the first ever “plastic plane” – an innovation has been a point of pride for Boeing but a subject of skepticism and ridicule from its detractors.

Instead of traditional metal, lighter and stronger composite materials – 35 tons of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic to be exact – are used to build each B787, including its entire fuselage as well as wings, tail, doors and interior. The result, according to Boeing, is a plane at least 20 percent more fuel-efficient than its rivals, a very appealing selling point when crude oil prices are hovering around USD 100 per barrel.

Passengers are likely to appreciate the B787 for its roomy cabin design (38cm wider than current competing models). They will also be able to see the horizon through larger cabin windows with higher eye level and futuristic auto-dimming features; breathe more easily in cleaner air provided by an advanced air-conditioning system; and enjoy a quieter ride thanks to new engine noise-reducing technologies.

Both Airbus and Boeing agree on the continuation of rapid growth in worldwide air travel, but their responses reveal their clashing views on the future trend. Airbus sees major airlines ferrying more and more passengers through their already-crowded mega-hubs to cope up with the rising demand – thus the need for the Superjumbo. Boeing, however, anticipates more travelers trying to avoid those congested hubs, opting instead for point-to-point service between smaller cities. So-called “thin long-haul routes” like Chengdu-Los Angeles and Beijing-Denver are already being touted as ideal for the B787 because of its operational efficiency.

Each manufacturer’s bet on its prediction is a multi-billion-dollar one, and it’s still way too early to declare the winner. So far the B787 has a leg up with some 50 airlines placing more than 800 orders, making it the fastest-selling wide-body jet ever before entry into service. The A380, in contrast, has logged fewer than 200 orders from 18 customers. But the B787 has suffered a blow as Boeing had to announce that, due to production delay, the first Dreamliner won’t be delivered to its launch customer All Nippon Airways (ANA) until December 2008, six months behind schedule.

That’s bad news for the five Chinese airlines (Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan and Shanghai) that combined have ordered almost 60 B787s. They had planned to start flying the shiny new plane to Beijing before the Olympics. Unfortunately for the airlines, the Games’ slogan is now more like “One World, No Dream(liner).” Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 38 of the January 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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