Airbus and Boeing’s rivalry has grown all the more intense in recent years as the burgeoning aviation industry continues to be shaped by expanding markets, the rising cost of fuel, a desire for greener and more sustainable aircraft and an increasingly restless global population with a greater will and means to travel than ever before.
Nowhere else is the competition between Europe’s Airbus and the US’s Boeing more apparent than in the Middle East, where the region’s impressive airlines and geographical location as a transport hub for the world are becoming ever more obvious.
Boeing’s performance in the region has been something of a rollercoaster ride. Having been the dominant provider of commercial planes in the 1980s, it took its eye off the ball over the past decade with Airbus picking up the Middle East’s demand for growth.
Last year, Boeing re-established itself as the number one aircraft provider, overtaking Airbus in deliveries for the first time in a number of years and also beating them on orders.
Speaking to a select group of Middle East media in Washington DC, Shep Hill, president of Boeing International, said the US maker had its rivals to thank for the group’s resurgence.
“Airbus made us a better company,” said Hill. “When you’re a monopoly you get lazy”.
“Now I’m not saying we were ever lazy because we always had competitors, but the emergence of Airbus has made us tougher, better, more customer-focused and a more innovative company. I like competition, I think it is good for you.”
It’s understandable that Hill speaks of the intense rivalry as a positive – you are always happy when you are winning. But he must be concerned by the ground breaking A380 and its dominance on Emirates’ Australia-UK route?
“The A380 is a magnificent aircraft. It is quiet, big, fascinating… we just do not think that there is a very large market for that size of aircraft. We don’t mind that Airbus built one that big,” Hill said.
“In terms of Emirates, they appear to have a successful business model that enables them to operate that profitably.
“We would argue that a 747-8 in terms of seat model cost is significantly more efficient and cost effective than an A380.” It is widely acknowledged that without regular full-capacity loads, several airlines have struggled to make the A380 profitable.
Speaking earlier in the year before Hill’s comments, Fabrice Brégier, president and CEO of Airbus, made a staunch defence of the A380.
“We have 160 A380s in our backlog. I would prefer to have 500 or 600 but how many 747-8s does Boeing have in its backlog? I don’t think it’s close to 160,” he told a packed room of global media in Toulouse.
“I don’t think there is the same potential in the 747-8, which is a now dated aircraft. Would they [Boeing] need the 777X if the 747-8 were a good aircraft? The answer is no.”
The jumbo contest is just one of the fronts on which these two titans of the aviation world are doing battle.
While the A380 monopolises Emirates’ stopover route from the UK to Australia, a partnership enhanced by the Dubai airline’s tie-up with Qantas, Boeing’s
777 family houses its largest fleet in the region, operated again by Emirates.
Though Boeing may believe there is still a place for its 747-8, the future battles will be played out by the 787 Dreamliner, the new 777X family and the Airbus A350.
The two companies will also go head- to-head as Boeing launches its 737 MAX to compete with Airbus’ A320neo – longer, more economical versions of their popular predecessors.
Boeing’s 777X is heavily expected to find its launch customer in the Gulf, with wide speculation focusing on Emirates, despite an early announcement from Lufthansa that they will place an order.
Likewise, Airbus has announced its A350 launch partner as Qatar Airways – reinforcement that both manufacturers view the Middle East as their battleground in the contest for supremacy and market share.
“The A350-1000 is not a paper tiger, it will come in 2017,”Brégier said.
“It will have globally the same performance as a 777-300ER but with 25 per cent less fuel burn, and the competitor must do something about it.”
Boeing, however, doubts the realism, of such a plane.
“Airbus is now going to respond and follow us with the A350-1000, in which they’re trying to have one single aircraft be two things: a 787 and 777, and we think that’s a hard thing to do,” said Hill.
“The A350 is brand new with limited technology risks, not a 777X which is an existing platform,” said Brégier.
“I have no appetite at all to launch a grounded aircraft.”
The final comment a stinging blow across the bows at Boeing’s well- publicised problems with the Dreamliner.
The competition and one-upmanship between the two plane makers could be described as the largest and longest game of chess ever played, with no sign of a checkmate on the horizon. The Kingmaker however, is undoubtedly the Middle East.