Saturday March 30, 2013

Airbus vs Boeing: a battery of problems


Airbus employees walk in front of an A380 Airbus aircraft at the final assembly line in Blagnac, southern France, recently. Assembly is tedious due to its huge size. – EPA Airbus employees walk in front of an A380 Airbus aircraft at the final assembly line in Blagnac, southern France, recently. Assembly is tedious due to its huge size. – EPA

The transatlantic David vs Goliath rivalry continues as the A380 and B787 get airborne but not without considerable hitches.

ONE is voluptuous and voluminous, combining the fulsome curves of a 1960s Playboy model with the polish and poise of a portly dowager. Critics describe her as a “dinosaur”.

The other is sleek, pretty, and quick, yet capable of long outings. She was late to the ball and her antagonists deride her as incontrovertibly “plastic”. Both are modern, high strung, and elegant in their own way. They have charmed, alarmed, been grounded, and hounded. Whom would you pick?

On the surface, the Airbus vs Boeing spat may appear rather more prosaic, yet the story of this transatlantic argle-bargle careening from the incredible to the insane has all the ingredients of a rich period drama with bruised suitors, stiff upper lips, twists in the tale and the ever-present frisson of dark gossip surrounding wing cracks, battery smoke and engine fires. So who will be standing at the final bell? The mammoth fly-by-wire A380 the distillation of years of electronic eugenics or the carbon fibre composite marvel, the B787 Dreamliner?

The hugely-delayed rollout of the Airbus A380 behemoth took place on Sept 25, 2007, with a Singapore Airlines inaugural flight from Singapore to Sydney, a charity event that raised US$1.83mil for Medecins Sans Frontires and two children's hospitals, proving at once that airlines can have a heart; and that the aircraft, while immense, was no gas guzzler, with 20% less fuel burn per passenger than a conventional B747-400. By early 2013, Airbus had 262 orders for the A380.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was delivered to the first recipient, a grateful and extraordinarily patient All Nippon Airways (ANA), on Sept 25, 2011, a little over three years behind schedule (a total of 890 Dreamliners are on the order books, a commercial coup). But the drama had only just begun. On Jan 9, 2013 a Japan Airlines Dreamliner was grounded at Boston's Logan International Airport after a battery in the aircraft's ancillary power system exploded. On Jan 16, 2013, an ANA B787 was diverted to Japan's Takamatsu Airport and made an emergency landing after a cockpit smoke alarm went off.

Shortly after, both ANA (the largest Dreamliner operator at the time with 17 aircraft in operation) and JAL had grounded their B787 fleet. They were not alone. Worried about electrical fires and overheating batteries the B787 runs almost entirely on electricity without the assistance of compressed air hydraulics the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) speedily grounded the planes in the United States. The rest of the world followed.

At one stroke, the 50 aircraft in service had disappeared from the skies as attention turned to the Japanese lithium ion battery manufacturer, GS Yuasa Corp.

While Boeing works on a new battery pack design using ceramic insulation, Airbus has announced that it will not use lithium-ion batteries on the under-development A350 the purported Dreamliner-slayer preferring traditional nickel-cadmium power.

It's easy to focus on Boeing's woes but both the B787 and the A380 jumbo have had their share of teething trouble. On Nov 4, 2010, a Qantas A380 suffered “catastrophic” engine failure over Batam, Indonesia, as one of its Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines broke its casing, damaging the wing and forcing an emergency but safe landing in Singapore.

The B787 grounding could place inordinate strain on the American aircraft manufacturer. It could be a very expensive problem. Airlines like LOT (Polish Airline) and ANA have already brought up the subject of compensation. Boeing's embattled McNerney says he stands firmly behind the “overall integrity” of the aircraft. With a price tag of just over US$200mil per aircraft, the Dreamliner venture is a major undertaking by the largest aircraft manufacturing company in the world.

Airbus, which has had no qualms with sabre-rattling and PR derring-do across the pond, has been uncharacteristically restrained in its comment. Speaking with journalists at the annual presentation of results mid-January 2013, in Toulouse, Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier said, “It's not our place to give Boeing lessons.” He was right to underplay things. The cost of fixing wing cracks on A380s has been estimated to run as high as US$666mil.

The stakes are high. Airbus opted for a super size aeroplane that could render the stalwart B747 all but obsolete, transporting a vast scrum of bodies in one neat package. While offering 49% more room than a Boeing 747 and 50% less cabin noise, the Airbus 380's operating costs are around 15% to 20% lower per seat. Add to this fewer emissions, less noise, and a huge seat capacity stretching from the median 555 to a staggering 800 (that has airline accountants salivating). Large capacity aircraft

Boeing believes large capacity aircraft flying to big, overcrowded, dispersal “hubs” are pass Travellers want speed, frequency, and direct connections. The B787 is swift and fuel efficient, with a cruising speed of Mach 0.85. It is smaller and can access regional airports without fuss. It also has a range that can extend to 16,000km carrying about 280 passengers. The B787 is pressurised for a lower altitude and with higher cabin humidity, which means you will not arrive at the other end looking and feeling like a desiccated peanut. Indeed, a depressed travel market could favour the B787.

The SIA A380 carries just 471 passengers (not the sweaty 800 of journalistic scuttlebutt). In addition to 12 partitioned suites in a grade beyond first class where a double bed can be created for passengers travelling together who might thus fully enjoy the feel of Givenchy linen aloft. Korean Air's A380 has made the entire upper deck the preserve of executive travellers and it also has the lowest number of seats in all, just 407. It's not sardine can travel at all.

Does physical size matter? The new, and larger, Airbus wing design ensures future versions of the aircraft can handle a total weight of up to 750 tonnes. This means the US$280mil A380 will achieve optimum cost-efficiency carrying closer to 800 passengers. That's a lot of beers and queues for the toilets. Airlines have threatened to install gyms, bars, casinos, shops, offices and even play areas. The coliseum has failed to materialise, alas, disappointing those who would love to toss all airline chefs to the lions, Christian or not.

It is a beast of a carrier. Assembly is tedious with hundreds of km of wire that have to be painstakingly fed through various parts of the frame. It needs more runway, more taxiway for the sweep of its enormous 79m wingspan, and boarding gates need reworking racking up cost for airports. On April 12, 2011 the wingtips of a taxiing Air France A380 at New York's JFK, struck the tail of a Delta commuter Comair flight, spinning the smaller plane around, proving once again, that might is right.

The Dreamliner is deliciously different. It has opted for a sweeping archways design and light diodes in the ceiling that mimic the changing sky colours. As Boeing might ask, do you need to fly a football field halfway across the world? The 787 cabin offers window shades whose opacity can be altered at the flick of a button and greater humidification of cabin air. Aisles are wider as are the seats. As with the A380, the B787 is a very quiet aircraft, rated to produce just about a quarter of the noise of a B747.

Ironically, Boeing could have launched the very first double-decker aircraft over three decades ago. Pressed by visionary Pan Am founder Juan Trippe for large double-decker aircraft, Boeing responded by designing the widebody B747, arguing that a two-storey aircraft would be plagued by far too many limitations.

Was big always beautiful? The prodigious and spectacularly ill-starred 12-engine Dornier Do-X was the world's biggest aircraft in 1929, its hull accommodating a full three floors. The Wall Street crash ended its career. By 1949, double-decker Boeing 377 Stratocruisers were plying the North Atlantic with opulent digs, and even living rooms, for first class passengers. The B377 used real beds. And there was the memorable Howard Hughes “Spruce Goose” (H4 Hercules) that took to the skies, briefly, in 1947. This extraordinary flying boat arrived too late to aid in the war effort its prime purpose and was relegated to museum attraction.

Small or strapping? Take your pick. Barring the hugely successful B747, aviation history has not been kind to passenger aircraft behemoths.

Now, once again, we shall have to wait and see.

Vijay Verghese is the editor of It's website is

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