Analysis The world's oldest airshow turned 100 this week, but went ahead without two of the largest aeronautical projects in recent years.
Paris airshow without Dreamliner, A400
The oldest air show in the world marked its 100th anniversary this week with an impressive flying display by some of the biggest and smallest members of the world's aviation club. Visitors to the Paris Air Show - which began on Monday at Le Bourget airport on the outskirts of the City of Lights - watched as Airbus put its superjumbo A380 through its paces, while Schiebel of Austria became the first firm to demonstrate an unmanned aerial vehicle, which weighed less than 200kg. Amid the fanfare, however, was the palpable absence of two of the largest aircraft programmes undertaken in recent years by the world's biggest makers: the 787 Dreamliner from Boeing and the A400M transport plane from Airbus. Production delays, cost overruns and numerous errors have afflicted both aircraft, which had promised important leaps in aerospace technology and efficiency. Their experiences may instead serve as valuable lessons for the two manufacturers, which made big promises and, like Icarus, may have flown too close to the sun. "The teething troubles have been just brutal," says Wolfgang Demisch, a partner at the financial consultancy Demisch Associates - which focuses on aerospace and technology companies - of Boeing's Dreamliner. But Boeing customers are still excited about the aircraft, Mr Demisch says, which is an important factor. The A400M was to be the first military airlifter bridging the gap left by two titans of the airlift business, Lockheed Martin's Hercules C-130J and the much larger Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. The A400M promised to be a long-range aircraft that could be adapted for use as a tanker, paratrooper and medical evacuation aircraft. The 787 Dreamliner, meanwhile, employed lightweight carbon fibre composites and the latest concepts in cabin shape, interior lighting and air humidity to create a more enjoyable flying experience. It tore out of the starting gates when it was first offered for sale in 2004 to eventually reach more than 900 firm orders before a single plane had even been delivered. That number stands at about 865 after the global recession forced some carriers and lessors to cancel plans. Boeing, based in Chicago, was close to staging its first flight for the Dreamliner by the close of the Paris Air Show, which ends on Sunday. But Scott Carson, the president and chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, this week said the Dreamliner's first flight would happen in the next two weeks. The Dreamliner will "fly when it's ready", Mr Carson said at a briefing. While it would be "great" to have flown the aircraft in time for the Paris show, he said the company would not be driven by any event. The A400M was launched in 2003 with orders from six European customers for a total of 180 aircraft, worth many billions of euros. Although delivery of the first planes was supposed to be this September, the project has been delayed by about four years and the first delivery is now slated to take place three years after the first flight, which has not happened yet. The six customer nations for the A400M may even cancel the contract, a move that would shatter confidence in Airbus and its parent company, EADS, as well as endanger tens of thousands of European jobs in the middle of a sharp recession. "We have spent ?2.3 billion on 180 aircraft already and I don't know if we can make a return on these," Louis Gallois, the chief executive of EADS, told Aviation Week this month. EADS has received ?5.7bn in pre-delivery payments from the six customers and "we have spent the money", Mr Gallois says. The biggest threat comes from the UK, reportedly one of the unhappiest of the launch customers. "We'll be hurt if they leave but it won't kill us if they do," he says. With the Dreamliner, Boeing was more the product integrator than the manufacturer, as large sections of the plane were produced in countries such as Italy and Japan, to be assembled in a record 72 hours at Boeing factories in Washington. Boeing relied on the supply chain to deliver on its promises like never before and was disappointed. The programme is now two years behind schedule. HCL, an Indian firm, improperly verified software bound for the first 787 test aircraft, which caused feedback loops that crippled the brake control system in laboratory testing, according to Jon Ostrower, an editor at Flight International. Mr Ostrower says a production mishap at Global Aeronautica, a joint venture by Boeing and Italy's Alenia Aeronautica, occurred when a contract employee used the wrong fasteners, which damaged the skin of a test plane. He says 3 per cent of the fasteners installed across all of its test planes had to be replaced. The removal of thousands of parts was caused by a poorly written specification, he adds. The Dreamliner delay was also made worse by a 57-day strike by Boeing's largest labour union. "I pity the airlines that get the first ones," Steven Udvar-Hazy, the chief executive of International Lease Finance, an aircraft leasing firm, told Flight International. "Obviously, those aircraft will not be the same standard as those 787s later on." Boeing seems to have moved beyond its production troubles with the first flight approaching. From there, it will then begin the process of certifying the aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration in the US, planned for the first quarter of next year. "The good news is that it seems to be coming together at this point," says Mr Demisch. Bill Alderman, of Alderman and Co Capital, a broker specialising in aerospace, adds: "They won't get it right the first time, but it'll be right enough to be safe, profitable and, over time, one of Boeing's best products ever built." Airbus's A400, on the other hand, is still in crisis mode. The programme's delays were caused by many factors, including the fact that Airbus had designed a new aircraft and a new engine at the same time, something normally considered too ambitious. Allocating responsibility for the project between France and Spain took its toll, as did the process to choose which European suppliers to use. Although Mr Gallois pledged a "complete reorganisation" of the project and that the standstill would end this month, it may be too late for some customers. With the UK a wild card, France and Germany have at least agreed to a six-month extension to renegotiate the contracts. Airbus Military already wants to charge about 30 per cent more for each aircraft, and Mr Gallois remains a confident salesman. "Look how many C-130s need to be replaced," he says. "The A400M is outstanding. It is the aircraft of the future." email@example.com