The showdown in re-engined narrowbody battle begins

As the global economy takes a turn for the worse with weakening passenger yields and a cargo doldrum significantly hurting airlines’ bottom line, there is little visibility beyond the runway, let alone leaping into the unknown by spending billions of dollars on hundreds of shiny new metals that are not going to be delivered five to six years from now, if not longer. It is against this backdrop that the battle of outselling each other by European plane-maker Airbus’ re-engined offering, the A320neo (new engine option) and its US counterpart, Boeing’s 737 MAX, is going to be fought.

The re-engined A320neo has gained significant traction since its programme launch in December 2010, having garnered 1,425 firm orders with the latest ones from Norwegian Air Shuttle (NAS) for 100 A320neos and lessor Air Lease Corporation (ALC) for 16 A320neos and 20 A321neos.

Its transatlantic arch-rival Chicago-based Boeing, meanwhile, has launched its re-engined 737 MAX offering 9 months later in August 2011, after concluding it cannot produce 50 to 60 clean-sheet composite narrowbody aircraft per month as well as American Airlines’ (AA) landmark order for the Airbus A320neo family aircraft as the AMR Corporation subsidiary has traditionally been a loyal Boeing customer.

Fast forward 10 months and the Boeing 737 MAX has made progress in its development, including choosing a larger engine fan size at 69.4 inches (176.3 cm) with a smaller engine core, up from the initial 68 inches and 68.4 inches thereafter, as an increase of 1 inch in engine fan size generally leads to a 0.5% reduction in engine specific fuel consumption (SFC), notwithstanding the increase in drag and weight penalty.

As the Boeing 737 MAX makes strides in its development towards its mid-2013 final configuration target with 1,000 orders and commitments, including 451 firm orders, a showdown in the re-engined narrowbody battle is all but inevitable this summer and beyond.

Image Courtesy of Airbus

Different winglet designs for MAX & neo
Besides the larger engine fan size, Boeing has also chosen to extend the nose landing gear by 8 inches with a nose fairing, eliminate the vortex generator on the tail cone that helps reduce drag by 1% and a 787-styled engine strut that improves its aerodynamic profile.

But the highlight of these 737 MAX developments is the adoption of the dual-feather Advanced Technology winglet, which increases the effective wing span without encroaching the Airplane Design Group (ADG) Group 4 instead of Group 3 and requiring costly airport modifications (“Boeing 737 MAX dual-feather winglet teleconference highlights“, 3rd May, 12).

The 35.8m (117.5ft) wingspan of a blended winglet-equipped 737-800 NG (Next-Generation) is already at the upper limit of ADG Group 3, which the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines as those with a wingspan between 79ft and 118ft whereas Group 4 aircraft as those with a wingspan between 118ft and 171ft.

Boeing 737 MAX chief project engineer (CPE) Michael Teal said “the wingspan of the MAX will remain in the Code C airport definition that the NG fits in today. Slightly [bigger] in terms of inches”. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) defines Code C aircraft as those with a 78.1-118.1in wingspan, whereas Code D aircraft has a 118.1-170.6in wingspan.

Boeing said the Advanced Technology winglet design is an in-house design, contrary to today’s 2.49m-high blended winglet produced by Seattle-based Aviation Partners Boeing Inc., a joint venture (JV) between Boeing and Aviation Partners Inc, and would deliver another 1%-1.5% fuel burn reduction depending on range.

“This dual-feather concept has an upper and lower piece that makes up the body of the winglet. To give more efficiency with just an upper winglet, you have to add more height to the top of the winglet. This adds weight and negates any additional benefit. The lower part of the winglet, in essence to a bit, by balancing the effective spans increase uniquely between the upper and lower parts. This makes the system more efficient without any more weight, thereby reducing drag and improving the overall fuel burn,” Teal elaborated.

Furthermore, Boeing said the Advanced Technology winglet now gives the 737 MAX a 5.5% fuel burn advantage versus those without it and further widens its lead in winglet technology since the introduction of the blended winglet on the 737 NG in 2001.

“For comparison, our competitor has just their first production airplane with a winglet and they claim the device will give customers up to a 3.5% fuel burn improvement relative to no winglet. Clearly the Boeing Advanced Technology winglet is another advantage the customers will have over the competition,” Teal claimed.

However, Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources at European aircraft manufacturer Airbus confirm that the sharklets currently undergoing flight tests have exceeded the 3.5% block fuel burn reduction performance guarantee by another 1%-1.5%, depending on stage length as the effect of fuel burn saving is more prominent on longer sectors.

The 3.5% block fuel burn reduction performance guarantee by Airbus is on top of the 1% block fuel burn reduction delivered by the wing-fences on today’s A320 and a 1%-1.5% better-than-expected fuel burn reduction means the sharklets will be 5.5%-6% more fuel efficient than an A320 without any winglet devices. Therefore the net result should be the same or 0.5% better than Boeing’s Advanced Technology winglet, depending on stage length.

The same sources at Airbus say while the sharklet has a shorter height at 2.4m, versus the blended winglet’s 2.49m height, the sharklet has a “very different 3D aerodynamic profile” than the blended winglet and “is much more aerodynamically efficient”. They also reveal that Airbus did study numerous dual-feather and downward-facing winglet designs before eventually settling on the sharklet, while adding the sharklet design, unlike the Advanced Technology winglet on the 737 MAX, will not increase the risk of ramp-rash nor affect the aircraft’s lateral control characteristics.

Moreover, on the contrary to rumours that Airbus is struggling on reinforcing the outer wing box and the centre wing box, these Airbus sources dismiss such claims as “baseless” and that the additional weight brought by the reinforcements in Rib 27 and those ribs outboard of Rib 8, along with the installed weight of the winglet, are going to be “neutralised” by 440lbs (200kgs) of weight reductions in the A320neo airframe.

Nevertheless Boeing is likely to contest these figures, as the removal of wingtip fence on the A320 will eliminate 1% of block fuel burn saving and that Aspire Aviation‘s sources at the world’s second-largest aircraft manufacturer countered that the dual-feather winglet has a “negligible” impact on the aircraft’s lateral control characteristics. In addition, Boeing downplayed the concern of ramp-rash, a phenomenon where ground support equipment collides with the airframe and causes airplane on ground (AOG) time which is costly to airlines as the airplane otherwise would have been in operation.

“We’ve looked through the various ground support equipment, the height and just make sure that the clearance to the ground is no different than what we had on the Classic. Given the fuel burn benefit, feedback we’re getting from the airline they are comfortable with that,” Boeing 737 programme vice president (VP) and general manager (GM) Beverly Wyse reiterated.

On the other hand, Airbus executive vice president (EVP) programmes Tom Williams said the European airframer has received “quite a lot of interest” on the sharklet retrofitting programme but it wants to have “breathing space” and have the forward-fit option “sorted out” first, whereas Boeing’s Wyse said the US plane-maker currently does not plan to have a retrofit programme at this stage.

“Right now we do not intend to retrofit this on the Next-Generation airplane, we may change that decision in the future but right now we’re just focused on introducing it on the MAX. We continue to have a strong relationship with APB, they’ll continue to be our partner for the winglet we have on the 737 Next-Generation, the 757 and the 767,” Wyse said.

Image Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Revisiting fuel burn claims
As the A320neo and 737 MAX’s double-digit fuel burn saving is the primary driver behind their popularity in light of historically high oil prices, the endless fuel burn debate is unquestionably going to continue and intensify as summer arrives and the re-engined narrowbody battle is only becoming fiercer and fiercer.

Quite frankly, the fuel burn debate is likely to continue to be comparing apples to oranges, instead of an apples-to-apples comparison and should the aforementioned gains in further fuel burn savings for both the Airbus and Boeing offerings materialise, both sides would make even bigger claims and trade blows to each other.

For the 150-seat A320neo (new engine option) powered by the 78-inch CFM Leap-1A engines on a 800nm (nautical miles) sector, Airbus says a 15.3% reduction in engine specific fuel consumption (SFC) consists of a 7% reduction in engine SFC owing to an improved core and another 7% engine SFC reduction from a 32% larger fan area and another 1% saving from powerplant integration. The sharklets would reduce block fuel burn of the aircraft by another 2.4%, which is negated by a 2.7% fuel burn penalty resulting from larger drag and a less than 2 tonnes increase in the A320neo’s manufacturers’ weight empty (MWE).

Should the flight tests validate the 1%-1.5% better-than-expected fuel burn performance of the sharklet ahead of its certification of sharklet-equipepd A320ceo (current engine option) at the end of this year, the Airbus A320neo (new engine option) should be 16% more fuel efficient than the CFM56-5B-powered A320ceo on a short 800nm trip.

In comparison, Airbus claims the 157-seat CFM Leap-1B-powered 737 MAX 8 is only 8% more fuel efficient than the winglet-equipped 737-800 powered by CFM56-7BE on a 800nm sector, with a 10% reduction in engine specific fuel consumption (SFC) consisting of a 6% SFC reduction from an improved core, a 3.5% reduction from a 24% larger fan area and another 0.5% reduction from powerplant integration. A 0.5% improvement in block fuel burn as a result of aerodynamic improvements is negated by a 2.5% block fuel burn penalty from increased weight and drag.

From Airbus’ perspectives, the 157-seat 737 MAX 8 should be 9.5% more fuel efficient than the winglet-equipped 737-800, having adopted a 1-inch bigger engine fan which shaves 0.5% off from the engine specific fuel consumption (SFC) and another 1% from the adoption of the Advanced Technology winglet on the 800nm mission.

Airbus could not be reached for comment at press time.

In stark contrast to its arch-rival’s claims, Chicago-based Boeing which aims to sell 1,000 737 MAX by the end of the year is likely to pitch the larger engine fan size and the adoption of Advanced Technology winglet would widen the 737 MAX’s lead over the A320neo and that its aerodynamic improvements, including the 787-styled tail cone and 787-styled engine strut would reduce block fuel burn of the 737 MAX 8 by 1%, instead of 0.5% claimed by Airbus. The elimination of an aft-body joint, coupled with an optimised engine core on the CFM Leap-1B engine, as well as the adoption of an improved trailing edge that incorporates the “mini-split flap” technology, a re-rigged outboard flap and drooped aileron from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continuous lower energy emissions noise (CLEEN) programme beginning in end-third quarter this year aboard an American Airlines 737-800 that has entered into final assembly, will make the 737 MAX even better.

Moreover, Boeing disputes the seat count used by Airbus in its calculation, saying its 737-800 usually has a 12 seats advantage over the competing A320ceo (current engine option). Seat count is closely relevant to the calculation of block fuel burn per seat, as more seats tend to lower the aircraft’s block fuel burn per seat.

Boeing says the 162-seat 737-800 has a 6% block fuel burn per seat over today’s 150-seat A320ceo on a 500nm trip, whereas Airbus disputes and says the two aircraft are at parity. Boeing previously said the 737 MAX 8 is 11% more fuel efficient than the 737-800 NG on a 500nm mission, with larger, more fuel-efficient CFM Leap-1B engine contributing 12% of block fuel burn saving and another 1% coming from the aforementioned aerodynamic improvements, which are partially negated by 2% of fuel burn penalty owing to increased weight and drag.

As a result of the adoption of Advanced Technology winglet and the 1-inch bigger engine fan, the 737 MAX is now 12%-13% more fuel efficient than the 737NG (Next-Generation), although Boeing is currently sticking to the publicly announced 10%-12% fuel burn reduction target.

“Prior to this announcement, we’re looking at a 10%-12% fuel burn improvement, this adds 1-1.5% depending on range of the aircraft. We’re continuing in a measured way to look at what are those things we can add to the airplane to make it more efficient to the customers,” Boeing 737 programme vice president (VP) and general manager (GM) Beverly Wyse said.

“But there’s always the potential, you know, we’re very careful with our performance commitment and there’s always the potential that either the winglet or the engine or some of the aerodynamic improvement could outperform our prediction,” Wyse commented.

All in all, as the A320neo and 737 MAX progress in their development phase, especially with US FAA CLEEN programme serving as a testing ground for 737 MAX technology, including the variable area fan nozzles (VAFN) which relies on the FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) to protect the fan against fluttering in the open position that could potentially cut 2% of fuel burn, there is no doubt that claims will continue to be made by both sides across the Atlantic.

A balanced market outlook
The war of words not only extends to the merits of each airplane, its fuel burn saving, winglets, but also to the aircraft price, with both aircraft manufacturers accusing each other of waging a price war.

“There they go again. Starting another price war to try to maintain 50% market share. Can’t they see that the natural market equilibrium is 60 to 40 in favour of Airbus on the single-aisle and probably the same in favour of Boeing in the widebody market until the A350 arrives,” questioned Airbus’ chief operating officer (COO) customers John Leahy in a Wall Street Journal interview.

“There is some predatory pricing out there. We’re 48% they’re 52%, pretty darn close to 50/50. We get paid a premium for our airplane, we like that. We are not going to let Airbus position themselves where they have a disproportionate amount of the market share,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) chief executive Jim Albaugh countered.

“We want to maintain our market share at 50 percent and we are going to do everything we can to win,” Albaugh told Reuters at the sideline of this week’s International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual general meeting (AGM) in Beijing.

Image Courtesy of Boeing via Airline Reporter

Make no mistake, while the 737 NG does have a higher average value at US$27.8 million apiece over the A320 family’s US$22.7 million apiece, according to the Airline Business Annual Leasing Survey in 2012 and Aspire Aviation‘s belief that the Boeing 737 MAX will maintain a slight but narrowed edge over the A320neo on an all-in cash operating cost (COC = direct operating cost + capital cost) which Lufthansa puts at 2%, such a close performance will inevitably imply that the competition will increasingly rely on price, which may outweigh the factor of commonality should the benefits of heavy discounting outweigh the training, maintenance costs involved in switching type of aircraft.

Given the precedent of heavy discounting by both sides to maintain the 50/50 market equilibrium, it is likely that the competition between the 737 MAX and the A320neo will remain the same.

In particular, Boeing is poised to announce a swathe of 737 MAX orders at the upcoming Farnborough Airshow in July and beyond, including Air Lease Corporation’s (ALC) possible order for 60 to 100 737 MAX aircraft, United Continental’s upcoming order for at least 100 firm 737 MAX aircraft and another 100 options, as well as possible 737 MAX orders from Chinese carriers. These orders will help Boeing claw its way back to a balanced market.

“Our best estimate on the 737 MAX is about a 12-13% improvement in unit-cost economics versus the 737-800. And the Neo is looking to be 14-15% better on the A320 and A321. So they’ll be quite close in terms of net results,” Air Lease Corporation (ALC) chief executive Steven Udvar Hazy said in a Bloomberg interview.

In fact, in using the payload/range charts of Airbus and Boeing, an Aspire Aviation study has found the 737 MAX 7 and MAX 8 having a slight range advantage over their Airbus counterparts, while the A321neo has the slight range advantage over the 737 MAX 9 (“Boeing continues to optimise 737 MAX“, 9th Apr, 12).

According to Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources at Boeing, the maximum take-off weights (MTOWs) of the 737 MAX 7, MAX 8 and MAX 9 will be increased to 71.7 tonnes (158,000lbs), 82.2 tonnes (181,200lbs) and 88.3 tonnes (194,700lbs), respectively. The A319neo, A320neo and A321neo, in the meantime, will see their MTOWs increased slightly to 75.5 tonnes (166,400lbs), 79 tonnes (174,165lbs) and 93.5 tonnes (206,100lbs), respectively, according to figures provided by Airbus to Leeham News.

As a CFM56-5B-powered A320 WV015 (Weight Variant) has a range of 3,000nm with 150 passengers at a roughly 13,800kg payload, the A320neo’s range would be approximately 3,510nm, after the new, more fuel-efficient engine will either add 950km (510 nm) to the A320ceo’s range, or 2 tonnes (4,400lbs) in additional payload. Similarly, the A319neo has a range of approximately 3,710nm versus the CFM56-5B-powered A319 which has a range of 3,200nm with 124 passengers at a 11,000kg payload. The A321neo has a range of around 3,510nm against the CFM56-5B-powered A321 whose range is roughly 3,000nm with 185 passengers at a 17,000kg payload.

In contrast, the range of the 737 MAX 8 will be 6,426km (3,470nm), an increase of 405nm with 162 passengers. The MAX 7 and MAX 9′s ranges will be 3,800nm with 126 passengers and 3,430nm with 180 passengers, respectively. A noteworthy point is Airbus said in its figures supplied to Leeham News that the ranges of the A319neo, A320neo and A321neo will be 4,200nm, 3,760nm and 3,760nm, respectively, which are considerably high.

Putting their differences aside, both Airbus and Boeing find a common ground in that the threat of the Chinese-built Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) C919 is overblown (“Comac C919 threat overblown“, 19th Apr, 11).

“[Airbus and Boeing have] put the established aircraft at the highest technological standard. We know there will be no new players in this industry, because everybody’s declared themselves,” Airbus chief operating officer (COO) customers was quoted in a flightglobal report.

“We know a thing or two about how tough that learning curve is. It’s steep, it’s tough, it’s capital-consuming, it knocks you down. It knocks you down hard,” Boeing senior vice president (SVP), sales and marketing, for Greater China and Korea Ihssane Mounir said, but warned “[Comac] will build a robust and competitive airplane [eventually] – they’re incredibly committed. If the Chinese say they’ll do something, they will.”

In conclusion, as the rhetorics by both Airbus and Boeing on the merits of their re-engined narrowbody offerings ratchet up as summer heat arrives, a real showdown in the multi-billion dollar battle is looming on the horizon and given the similar economics of both the A320neo and 737 MAX, a balanced market is likely to be achieved through price competition by both sides. After all, while diluted margins are not the favourite thing Airbus and Boeing would like to see in the narrowbody market, it is nonetheless better in maintaining the duopoly between them, rather than losing their grips on it.

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  1. Boeing 737 MAX ups the ante in dogfight with A320neo | Aspire Aviation
    [...] A320 without any winglet device, or 4.5%-5% when compared to a wingtip fence-equipped A320 (“The showdown in re-engined narrowbody…


  1. For the LEAP-1B a VAFN would probably not doing any good, as the BPR is too small and the fan pressure ratio too high (due the limited fan diameter). The weight of the VAFN would offset the fuel burn advantage mainly seen during cruise.

  2. The potential MAX orders mentioned in this article will be interesting to watch, as Boeing’s “1000 orders and commitments” argument is admittedly beginning to wear a bit thin. If they can land some big orders over the summer, they’ll certainly be in decent shape, and these customers are particularly important. First, United is a major U.S. airline, which is also now a relatively equal-status partnership between an A320 customer and a 737 customer (Continental). If United goes with the MAX, and especially if they go exclusively with the MAX, it will be a good win for Boeing, “holding serve” in their home territory with a customer that could have easily gone either way. It wouldn’t quite negate American going to a neo-leaning split order, but it would be a good step in that direction.

    As far as any sales to China-based airlines, that would be a major victory, if they can land it. First off, quite simply, it’s the fastest-growing aircraft market in the world, and to date, neither the MAX nor the neo has made any sales there. Secondly, there’s the spectre of government pressure on the Chinese airlines to favor the upcoming C919 over any other manufacturer. In my opinion, this increases the value of being the first to land major orders in the China sector, since I think the pro-C919 pressure will increase if MAX and/or neo sales have reduced the C919’s potential market. Therefore, if Boeing makes its sales first, then Airbus will have to fight for its share against that stronger pressure (or vice-versa).

  3. I think market parity between the NEO and the MAX is based on hope mainly. The sales and specs make me don't want to bet..

    Range isn't that important above 3000NM. The fact the MAX has bigger fuel tanks won't keep many awake.

    The 1000 promised by Boeing for this year continue to be moved backwards it seems. Many established 737 users are sitting on the fence for the MAX, talking to "everybody" that must be worrying. AA, Norwegian, Qantas and Garuda switched.

    The Chinese are under pressure to fill the Tianjin line while Airbus talks to Mobile..

  4. [...] A320 without any winglet device, or 4.5%-5% when compared to a wingtip fence-equipped A320 (“The showdown in re-engined narrowbody battle begins“, 13th Jun, [...] Reply

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