Boeing 737 MAX ups the ante in dogfight with A320neo
At last year’s Paris Air Show, there were blue skies and the airline industry managed to stay relatively healthy despite soaring oil prices and an anaemic global economic recovery, with a year-end industry-wide profit of US$7.9 billion, according to Geneva-based industry body International Air Transport Association (IATA). Fast forward 12 months and the global economy was in a very different shape. Having gone through the fear of contagion in the eurozone economy as a result of a calamitous Greek election that almost wreaked havoc across global financial markets, investors and businesses now find themselves bracing for the US$500 billion defence budget sequestration, which, coupled with the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts, is characterised as falling off a fiscal cliff.
The airline industry was hit particularly hard by this “triple whammy” – weakening business confidence, skyrocketing fuel prices and an increase in aircraft deliveries, with 2012 industry profit expected to be more than halved at just US$3.0 billion, a mere 0.5% profit margin.
This was the economic backdrop against which the re-engined Boeing 737 MAX aircraft won 285 new orders and commitments during this year’s Farnborough Airshow in the UK, including 175 firm orders from aircraft lessor Air Lease Corporation (ALC) and United Continental Holdings. The US$14.7 billion order from Chicago-based United Continental Holdings for 100 737 MAX 9s and 50 737-900ERs also propelled the 737 family beyond the 10,000 order milestone.
Firm orders for the re-engined, more fuel efficient 737 MAX airplanes now stand at 649, with combined orders and commitments for over 1,200 examples.
Make no mistake, while the competing offering from Boeing’s transatlantic arch-rival, the re-engined Airbus A320neo (new engine option) has a 9-month head start, which has garnered 1,554 firm orders since its launch on 1st December, 2010, the 737 MAX is on track to meet its year-end target of having 1,000 firm orders.
For instance, Airbus had 638 firm orders for the A320neo family aircraft after last year’s Paris Air Show in June, but ended up winning 1,276 firm orders in 2011 alone. In comparison, Boeing has 649 firm orders for the 737 MAX family aircraft after Farnborough Airshow and since the beginning of this year, the 737 MAX has secured 499 firm orders whereas the A320neo has 218 firm orders, as delivery slots for the highly successful re-engined Airbus single-aisle were taken up fast.
“While this still lags the [A320]neo’s 1,454 [1,554] firm orders,  MAX momentum is building and we expect more orders and commitment conversions this year. At the show, Boeing defined the MAX enhancements that will drive the 13% improvement versus the NG [Next-Generation] and this definition was likely key for many customers,” Credit Suisse said in a 12th July research note to clients.
War of words in every single arena
Besides the sales performance that stole the media spotlight last week, the war of words between Airbus and Boeing over the merits of their narrowbody offerings continues and in fact extends to every arena other than just the block fuel burn of the aircraft.
For instance, European plane-maker Airbus bases its marketing pitch around the centrepiece driving the 15% fuel burn improvement – next-generation engines, claiming that the A320neo as the only aircraft that “can fully benefit from a high bypass engine” with a 18.1in (46cm) ground clearance even with an 81in (2.06m) fan diameter and a 104.3in (2.65m) nacelle diameter on the bigger Pratt & Whitney (P&W) PW1100G-JM engine.
Boeing counters that the lightweight design of the 737 NG (Next-Generation) contributes to the lower operating cost and maintenance cost of the 737 NG versus its competitors and that this advantage in weight will be retained by the 737 MAX over the A320neo.
Boeing claims its 162-seat 737-800 is 10% lighter in terms of operating empty weight (OEW) per seat than a 150-seat A320, whereas the 126-seat 737-700 is 5% lighter per seat than a 126-seat A319 and the 180-seat 737-900ER is 7% lighter per seat than a 183-seat A321.
Boeing says as fuel accounted for 39% in operating costs and landing and navigation fees accounted for another 29% on a 500nm (nautical miles) mission at a fuel price of US$3.5 per gallon in 2011 dollars, coupled with the fact that airframe and engine maintenance accounted for another 5% and 3% of an aircraft’s operating cost, respectively, that the 737 NG’s lighter weight will drive lower operating costs, as today’s 737-800 having a 8% lower operating cost than the A320 demonstrates.
Boeing also adds that US Department of Transportation (DOT) Form 41 data has shown the 737 NG having a 27% lower total direct maintenance cost (DMC) per flight hour from 2003-2010 and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Maintenance Task Force has found similar results with a 23% lower DMC than the A320 family aircraft. Boeing says planned improvements in 2014 will further slash the 737 NG’s airframe maintenance cost by a further 7%.
Airbus apparently rejects Boeing’s claims on the 737 Next-Generation’s operating cost advantages in addition to the maintenance cost advantages, as a structural improvement implemented in the A320’s wings in 2010, a maintenance programme introduced in 2011 and the extended service goal (ESG) in place earlier this year which extends the A320’s lifespan from 48,000 flight cycles (FC)/60,000 flight hours (FH) to 60,000 FC/120,000 FH have reduced the A320’s direct maintenance cost (DMC), let alone the A320’s digital fly-by-wire system that features fewer mechanical parts and hence results in lower maintenance costs and fewer re-rigging maintenance tasks.
Moreover, Boeing claims that when compared to a fleet of 100 A320s, a fleet of 100 737 NGs will have 590 fewer delays and disrupting 65,000 fewer passengers per airplane per year with a schedule reliability of 99.7% versus the A320’s 99.4%. The 737 MAX, in the meantime, will have a US$1.3-1.8 million net present value (NPV) saving in airframe maintenance cost versus the A320neo (new engine option), a US$1 million NPV saving in engine maintenance cost and 67 fewer days out of service.
Airbus refutes this by saying that the A320 family aircraft has achieved a 99.7% operational reliability with 60 million flights and 6.5 billion passengers being carried so far, as well as 110 million revenue flight hours which increase by 1 million each month with the worldwide A320 fleet growing at 10% each year. A noteworthy point is, Airbus’ 99.7% operational reliability figure only includes the last 250 aircraft produced, whereas Boeing’s figures are based on the worldwide A320 and 737 Next-Generation (NG) fleets on a given timeline.
Furthermore, Boeing characterises Airbus A320neo’s sharklets as “in-service technology” and that its Advanced Technology winglet will yield an additional 1% reduction in a 737 MAX’s block fuel burn on a 500nm (nautical miles) mission. The lower portion of the dual-feather winglet, which will extend downward by 30in (76.2cm), will not affect the 737 MAX’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Code C category. The ICAO Code C category features airplanes whose wingspan is between 78.1-118.1in, whereas Code D aircraft has a 118.1-170.6in wingspan.
The sharklet, Airbus fires back, will slash the block fuel burn of a wingtip fence-equipped A320 by up to an additional 3.5% while improving range by 100nm (nautical miles) and payload by 450kg (992 lbs). The 2.44m (8ft) high winglet device will increase an A320’s wingspan by 1.7m (5ft 7in) and that the weight penalty brought by a reinforcement in the outer wing box Rib 27 and those ribs outboard of Rib 8, and the reinforcement in the centre wing box, will be “neutralised” by 200kg (440lb) of weight reduction on the A320neo airframe.
According to Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources at the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, the fuel burn performance of the sharklets has exceeded initial expectations by 1%-1.5%, thereby resulting in a net block fuel burn saving of 5.5%-6% when compared to an 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, 12).
A weighty matter
If the sales performance of the 737 MAX was the focus of the Farnborough Airshow, then the weight details on the 737 MAX released by Boeing were less popular, yet arguably more intriguing information.
The 737 MAX 8 will see its range and maximum take-off weight (MTOW) being increased to 3,620nm (nautical miles) and 82.2 tonnes (181,200lbs), up from 3,080nm and 79t (174,200lbs), respectively. The 737 MAX 7 saw a 5,000lbs increase in its MTOW from 70t (154,400lbs) to 72.3t (159,400lbs) and its range being boosted by 400nm from 3,400nm to 3,800nm. The largest variant in the MAX family, the 737 MAX 9, will see its MTOW being boosted by 7,000lbs from 85.1t (187,700lbs) to 88.3t (194,700lbs) and its range increased to 3,595nm from 3,055nm.
“We continue to make steady progress towards our development goals. We are able to firm up our maximum take-off weight projections, which allow us to confirm that the 737 MAX will fly farther and offer more revenue potential than its predecessor and its future competitor,” Boeing 737 programme vice president (VP) and general manager (GM) Beverly Wyse said.
“This will allow our customers the flexibility to open up new markets. 737 customers today enjoy a range advantage over the competition and now they’ll have even more benefit with the 737 MAX. A lower operating empty weight but higher maximum take-off weight allows customers to increase payload or range of the airplane beyond what the main competition can offer,” Boeing 737 MAX product marketing vice president (VP) Joe Ozimek highlighted.
Boeing says all the 737 MAX variants will enjoy the range advantage over their A320neo family counterparts, with the 162-seat 737 MAX 8 having a range of 3,620nm versus the 150-seat A320neo’s 3,295nm, a 325nm advantage. The 126-seat 737 MAX 7 will have a range advantage of 240nm with its range at 3,800nm versus the 126-seat A319neo’s 3,560nm range. The 180-seat 737 MAX 9 will have a 485nm range advantage with its range at 3,595nm versus the 183-seat A321neo’s 3,110nm range.
Airbus contests these figures and has revealed to Leeham News that the range of its 124-seat A319neo, 150-seat A320neo and 185-seat A321neo is 4,200nm, 3,760nm and 3,760nm, respectively; though an independent Aspire Aviation research has put the range of the A320neo and A321neo at 3,510nm whereas the range of the A319neo is at 3,710nm, confirming the Boeing 737 MAX’s lead over the A320neo in range, albeit at a reduced level.
Most importantly, while there is a widespread misconception that an increase in maximum take-off weight (MTOW) necessarily leads to an increase in payload, it involves complex calculations which may not hold true every time.
For the 737 MAX 8, the manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW) has increased by 2.49 tonnes (5,500lbs) and its maximum take-off weight (MTOW) has increased by 7,000lbs.
As airline-specific operating empty weight (OEW) = MEW + Standard Item (SI) + Operator Item (OI), a 5,500lbs increase in MEW would directly lead to a 5,500lbs increase in OEW, assuming there is no change in the methodology used by Boeing and Airbus to calculate these figures.
Next, maximum take-off weight (MTOW) ≥ MZFW (maximum zero fuel weight) + total fuel loaded – taxi out fuel, a 7,000lbs increase in the 737 MAX 8’s MTOW will directly lead to a 7,000lbs increase in MZFW, as the amount of fuel accommodated in the 737 MAX 8’s fuel tanks remains unchanged.
Then as maximum zero fuel weight (MZFW) = OEW + payload, a 7,000lbs increase in MZFW and a 5,500lbs increase in OEW will mean a 680.4kg (1,500lbs) increase in the 737 MAX 8’s payload.
For the A320neo (new engine option), the manufacturer’s weight empty (MWE, same as MEW in Boeing’s term) has increased by 1.8 tonnes (3,968lbs) on Pratt & Whitney (PW) PW1100G-JM engines-powered A320neo and by 1.7 tonnes (3,748lbs) on CFM Leap-1A-powered A320neo.
Now the A320neo’s maximum take-off weight (MTOW) has increased by 1 tonne (2,200lbs) from 78 tonnes to 79 tonnes (174,200lbs), MZFW will also increase by 2,200lbs assuming there is no change in the fuel tank capacity of the A320neo per the MTOW ≥ MZFW + total fuel loaded – taxi out fuel formula.
However, as MZFW = OEW + payload, a 2,200lbs increase in MZFW and a 3,968lbs increase in OEW will yield a -802kg (1,768lbs) figure in payload, i.e. a 802kg decrease in payload.
An Aspire Aviation source at Airbus verified the calculations and cautioned that the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of the A320neo is “provisional”, which is very likely to be revised upwards. Moreover, as the A320neo is 15% more fuel efficient than an A320 Classic, the fuel carried can be proportionally 15% less while flying the same mission, thereby yielding a 15% increase in maximum zero fuel weight (MZFW) and hence yielding an increase in payload.
A point of contention is likely to be the different ways Airbus and Boeing used in calculating the manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW). Boeing’s method in calculating MEW includes seats and some operator items (OI) but Airbus excludes customised interiors and all operators items (OI) in MWE’s calculation. An Aspire Aviation source at Chicago-based Boeing says this difference will lead to a 2-4 tonnes exaggeration in the 737 MAX’s MEW and hence favouring Airbus by minimising A320neo’s MWE increase, depending on the type of seats and interior furnishings an airline chooses.
Though all weight figures used in Aspire Aviation‘s calculation are “delta weight” figures, thereby negating any distortions from any airframers in the methodology used in calculating manufacturer’s empty weight (MEW).
Meanwhile, weight is the primary driver in Boeing’s marketing pitch as a heavier airframe such as the A320 requires more power, which in turn requires bigger engine.
Boeing says the 737 MAX will retain a 17in (43.18cm) ground clearance with a 69.4in (1.76m) CFM Leap-1B engine whose higher and much forward position will lead to a 7 inches centre of gravity (CG) shift forward.
Boeing says 69.4 inches fan size is the “fuel burn optimum”, as an increase in engine fan size will lead to increased weight and drag, despite a 1-inch increase in engine fan size generally leads to a 0.5% reduction in engine specific fuel consumption (SFC), the weight and drag penalty on the overall block fuel burn notwithstanding.
Boeing used the 737 MAX 9 and A321neo (new engine option) as an example. The 737 MAX 9 has a larger wing with a wing area of 127.5m² whereas the A321neo has a smaller wing with a wing area of 122.6m² and the 737 MAX 9 has a lower maximum take-off weight (MTOW) at 88.3t (194,700lbs) than the A321neo’s 93.5t (206,130lbs). Boeing concludes “a larger wing lifting a lighter aircraft requires lower thrust” and the 737 MAX 9 requires a lower thrust at 27-28 kips versus the A321neo’s 32-33 kips and a “20% more thrust required results in larger than 10% larger fan diameter”.
The Chicago-based airframer goes further by asserting the fact that a 162-seat 737 MAX 8 is 2,200lbs lighter in operating empty weight (OEW) will result in 5% lower fuel burn per seat, 1% lower cash airplane related operating costs (CAROC) per trip and 8% lower CAROC per seat than the 150-seat A320neo.
Boeing says the 737 MAX 8’s engine technology will reduce 14% of the aircraft’s block fuel burn, further improved by 1% by the Advanced Technology winglet and another 1% by the elimination of vortex generator and the new inlet door design of the 737 MAX’s auxiliary power unit (APU) that has a “retractable intake door”, which is negated by 3% of weight and drag penalty by accommodating the heavier, larger 69.4in CFM Leap-1B engine.
Boeing asserts that the 150-seat A320neo (new engine option) is only 12% more fuel efficient than an A320 Classic on a 500nm (nautical miles) trip, with 14% coming from new engine technology, another 2% from sharklet which is “in-service technology”, which is negated by 4% of weight and drag penalty. Airbus refutes this by saying the 157-seat 737 MAX 8 is only 8% more fuel efficient than the 737-800 on an 800nm mission, with a 10% engine specific fuel consumption (SFC) reduction and a 0.5% aerodynamic improvement negated by 2.5% extra weight and drag.
Aspire Aviation thinks both airframers exaggerate the merits of their re-engined narrowbody offering and that the 737 MAX is lighter and more fuel efficient on shorter missions on 500nm (nautical miles) or so and the A320neo is more aerodynamically efficient and burns less fuel on longer sectors that are 800nm long or beyond.
For instance, CFM Leap-1A is 15% more fuel efficient than the CFM56-7BE engine, yet Boeing rates the 69.4in Leap-1B the same as the 78in Leap-1A engine as being 14% more fuel efficient, as an engine with a larger fan size is generally more fuel efficient. Similarly, Airbus only counts the 737 MAX 8 as 157-seat instead of 162-seat, as more seats usually lead to lower fuel burn per seat.
There have been industry speculations that the CFM Leap-1B engine missed its specific fuel consumption (SFC) target by 2%-3% at this early stage, though Aspire Aviation‘s sources at Boeing say the General Electric (GE)-Snecma joint venture (JV) has provided “guarantee” to Boeing that the Leap-1B engine will meet specifications by service entry.
“We think we’ve got the right architecture, and the more we go into it and the closer to defining the design, we feel more comfortable with what we’ve chosen,” CFM executive vice president (EVP) Chaker Chahrour told Aviation Week.
While Boeing and Airbus dispute each other’s claims and their differences remain, there is one thing in common: both the 737 MAX and A320neo (new engine option) are minimal-change aircraft.
The Airbus A320neo (new engine option) is expected to feature the aforementioned sharklet, a new pylon, an engine selection of either the 81-inch Pratt & Whitney PW1100G or 78-inch CFM Leap-1A, a new engine nacelle and weight savings of 200kg (400lbs) that are aimed at offsetting the aforementioned weight increase brought by the installation of the sharklet.
Besides the centre wing box and outer wing box reinforcements, the A320neo will feature an adapted fly-by-wire system that incorporates load alleviation function (LAF) which may enable future maximum take-off weight (MTOW) increases after flight-testing, as well as an electrical bleed air system (EBAS) that reduces shop direct maintenance cost (DMC) by 70% and operational interruption by a staggering 74%.
All these are meant to enable airlines to reap the benefits from next-generation engine technology without a deja vu of the likes of 747-8, where a simple re-engining creeped to a major overhaul, as the A320neo enters into production phase with the metal cut of an engine pylon on 8th July.
“We’re aware how sensitive this product is. We will really stress-test the industrial system to make sure when the ramp-up is coming. If there’s any difficulty we’ll get to know them far in advance before production starts,” Airbus A320neo senior vice president (SVP) Klaus Roewe told flightglobal.
Likewise, Boeing is adopting a minimal-change approach on the 737 MAX, with the optimised 69.4in CFM Leap-1B engine at the core of the upgrades. Other upgrades include the Advanced Technology winglet, fly-by-wire spoilers, digital bleed control in the environmental control system (ECS), 787-styled auxiliary power unit (APU) that slashes block fuel burn by 1% and the elimination of an aft-body join.
What Boeing does not include for the 737 MAX are a swathe of technologies due to be tested in the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) continuous lower energy emissions noise (CLEEN) programme onboard an American Airlines (AA) Boeing 737-800 aircraft by the end of this summer.
These range from the mini-split flap, trailing edge variable camber (TEVC), hybrid laminar flow control (HLFC) to the variable area fan nozzle (VAFN), which promises to cut fuel burn by 2%.
“I don’t think we need them,” Boeing 737 MAX chief project engineer Michael Teal told Aviation Week.
Intriguingly, despite the potential fuel burn saving by the variable area fan nozzle (VAFN) which also protects the engine from fluttering, VAFN has been rejected by both Airbus and Boeing for the A320neo and 737 MAX, respectively. Both Airbus and Boeing sources of Aspire Aviation say the airframers remain “sceptical” of the “unproven technology”.
In addition, while the trailing edge variable camber (TEVC) will move the centre of lift forward, which resolves the 7 inches forward issue of the 737 MAX’s centre of gravity (CG) “nicely”, TEVC will also increase drag and negate “some of the fuel burn savings”, sources say. The hybrid laminar flow control (HLFC) applied to the 787-9 Dreamliner may not work as well given the 737 MAX’s short-haul missions, which make short-haul aircraft “more susceptible” to contamination and negate the drag reduction benefits.
As the design of the 737 MAX advances, Boeing will also squeeze in a third 737 assembly line in its Renton, Washington plant in a move to boost production efficiency.
“The production system is at least as important in this equation as the design of the product to ensure that we can deliver on time and as efficiently as we do today,” Boeing 737 programme vice president (VP) and general manager (GM) Beverly Wyse emphasised to Bloomberg.
“As we continue to go up in rate, which we would expect to, we would have the capacity at the site to do that [21 units per month rate at 3 lines],” Wyse commented.
“It’s like your house, you accumulate stuff. We can use this space more efficiently than we are right now,” vice president (VP) of Boeing 737 manufacturing operations Eric Lindblad said.
Should demand dictate, Boeing could easily invest money in expanding its 3rd 737 production line and makes these three 737 production lines churning out 21 pieces each per month, for a total of 63, without the supply chain, build-quality risks that Airbus’ A320neo (new engine option) final assembly line (FAL) in Mobile, Alabama may incur, just as Boeing South Carolina site whose build-quality issue made it the “weakest link” before improving substantially recently.
This will make the 3rd 737 production line at Renton the most capital-efficient, most flexible final assembly line (FAL) as Airbus’ Mobile assembly plant, in Aspire Aviation‘s opinion, will reduce Airbus’ flexibility over the very long-term, as investing in an assembly plant requires the business case to work at not only good times, but also bad and turbulent times. While the current industry up-cycle is still strong and sound, as Airbus’ forecast of demand for 19,170 new single-aisle aircraft in the next 20 years in its global market forecast (GMF) released late last year shows, one may never know when will the bubble burst until it is indeed burst.
By then Airbus will be in a difficult position where it cannot reduce the job numbers at its European sites in Toulouse and Hamburg due to political reasons and strong union opposition, as well as being difficult to downsize the final assembly line in Tianjin, China (FALC) where the plant is tied to Airbus A320 orders. Admittedly, the final assembly line (FAL) in Mobile, Alabama is indeed innovative, creative and ambitious, yet Aspire Aviation thinks the jury is still out on whether it will make an inroad into Boeing’s home turf.
Balanced single-aisle market
But the minimum-change approach is where the similarity ends. Airbus and Boeing both accuse each other of waging a price war in order to grab the lion’s share from the multi-trillion single-aisle aircraft market, which Boeing’s latest current market outlook (CMO) 2012-2031 puts at 23,240 new aircraft with a US$2.03 trillion price tag.
“We have a competitor who is trying to come back and so is very aggressive regarding the prices. But we keep the line. We keep cool. We have already 1,400 aircraft in the order book, so we are not in a rush, and when we sell the A320neos, we make a very good margin,” Airbus’ new chief executive Fabrice Bregier said.
“I am pretty sure that, since we launched the neo (December 2010) by the end of 2012, we will still be ahead of Boeing with their product,” Bregier asserted.
Aspire Aviation thinks both Airbus and Boeing are equally guilty of a price war, as in the case of dance where you need two partners. Airbus has also shown to be very aggressive in luring Boeing’s customers in an attempt to unlock the 737 customer base, as were the cases of American Airlines (AA), Norwegian Air Shuttle and Brazil’s Gol.
At the end of the day, Aspire Aviation predicts a balanced narrowbody market equally split between the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX.
With a slew of aircraft deals coming, as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported Boeing is close to winning deals from Aeromexico for 70 737 MAXs and 787-9 Dreamliners, along with those from Copa Airlines and Gol, Boeing is on course to meet its year-end target of securing 1,000 firm orders on 737 MAX programme.
“The 737 MAX is a very competitive airplane with strong customer interest. We are confident that 2012 will continue to be the year of the MAX with a total of 1,000 firm orders by the end of 2012,” Boeing 737 MAX product marketing vice president (VP) Joe Ozimek commented.
A key litmus test would be Turkey’s Pegasus Airlines, where Airbus is close to signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Turkish carrier for the A320neo, multiple Aspire Aviation sources at Airbus and Boeing confirmed. Boeing is understood to be making a last-ditch effort to lure back the Turkish carrier for the 737 MAX aircraft.
As in every dogfight, every race is a very intense and competitive one, with price under tremendous pressure. With Boeing likely to defend its market share at the expense of yield, as is Airbus, it is going to be 50/50 split with yield cannibalisation that prevents the likes of aspirants from China, Brazil, Canada and Russia from entering the 150-200 seat segment where the 737 MAX and A320neo are selling like pancakes.
Only time will tell.
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