The fuel-efficiant jet boom

As carriers park old fuel-guzzling jets, plane makers are battling to win sales and crush newcomers

Gail Hanusa/Boeing

Business travellers flying between New York and Singapore recently learned they will no longer be able to make the 15,000-km journey on a single non-stop flight, the world’s longest. Singapore Airlines said it decided to cut the 19-hour route because it’s no longer profitable as oil prices rise and big corporations cut back on their travel budgets.

But what’s been bad for airlines and their customers—a shaky global economy and expensive jet fuel—has been a boon for plane manufacturers. Boeing Co. and Airbus SAS are assembling jetliners at Mach speed as airlines increasingly park older, fuel-guzzling jets and replace them with more efficient models. Boeing’s long-range 787 Dreamliner, for example, promises a 20 per cent reduction in fuel burn and a 30 per cent reduction in maintenance expenses. More than 800 have been ordered by airlines at a list price of up to US$243 million each.

Demand for other models is also running high. Boeing now churns out its 777 model at a rate of 8.3 planes a month, up from seven, the fastest it has ever made a twin-aisle plane. Last month, rival Airbus inaugurated a factory in Toulouse, France, for production of its A350 jet, which competes with the 787.

An all-out battle for market share is brewing as forecasts call for huge growth ahead. Boeing estimates North American airlines alone will buy 7,290 airplanes worth $8 billion between now and 2020. But analysts warn the future is not at all certain. “It’s all about fuel prices,” says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Virgina-based Teal Group. Older aircraft will once again look economical if the price of oil falls below $70 a barrel, he says. Conversely, if it goes above $110, many airlines will be losing too much money to contemplate multi-billion-dollar plane purchases.

Nowhere is this being watched more closely than in Montreal, where Bombardier is rushing to get a test version of its all-new C-Series jet into the air before year’s end. With 110 to 149 seats, the C-Series marks the first time Bombardier will compete head-to-head with the smallest models made by Boeing and Airbus. So far, it has 138 firm orders for the jet.

Aboulafia believes that Bombardier faces a tough slog. In a bid to protect their duopoly, Boeing and Airbus have strapped engines that are more fuel-efficient to their smaller planes—the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737—and offered potential C-Series customers steep discounts. “There’s already a brutal market-share war between Airbus and Boeing,” Aboulafia says. “Bombardier may have brought a crème brûlée torch to a flame-thrower fight.”

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