By Stanley Holmes As plane deals go, this could well be the biggest prize in recent memory. In December, three major Asia-Pacific carriers are expected to place orders for more than 100 widebody jets worth an estimated $16.8 billion. And by the looks of things, Boeing (BA) looks poised to supply most of the planes.
The Chicago-based aerospace company has been on a roll lately, racking up orders at a phenomenal pace for its 787 Dreamliner -- and the new jet could account for half of the Asia-Pacific orders. But Boeing also is getting some unexpected lift from another plane: the 777. Thanks to the rise of its two most fuel-efficient widebody jets at a time of rising energy prices, Boeing has a potent one-two punch that could knock European rival Airbus into second place for years to come. Says Randy Baseler, Boeing vice-president for marketing: "We feel very confident about our strategy."
Of course, in the bare-knuckles aviation game, a Boeing triumph is hardly assured. Airbus, famous for aggressive sales tactics, could swoop in at the last minute and undercut Boeing on price. Airbus declined to comment for this story.
STRATEGIC VICTORY. But if Boeing wins all or even most of the Asia-Pacific orders, as many insiders expect, this could provide a major boost to the commercial side of its business, even as defense goes into a trough. While Boeing's third-quarter revenues and earnings suffered because of a four-week strike earlier this year at its commercial-airplane unit, the company raised its earnings outlook for this year and next, citing stronger demand for commercial airplanes.
A big win in the Asia-Pacific region could add to Boeing's backlog of $98 billion worth of new planes and boost operating profits by $3.5 billion over the next five to seven years. Even better, a victory would further validate Boeing's twin-engine, point-to-point strategy -- based around the idea that carriers prefer to fly smaller, more fuel-efficient planes nonstop between two far-flung destinations.
Boeing's resurgence comes at a time when Airbus is stalling badly. Delivery delays of its 555-seat A380 super-jumbo jet have angered key customers. And an inability to settle on the final design of its new A350 has given the 787 and 777 an even bigger head start (see BW Online, 10/07/05, "Airbus' A350: Flying Into a Storm?").
More troubling yet for Airbus: Its four-engine A340 is deemed a gas guzzler. "Boeing sees Airbus as weak, and they're right," says Doug McVitie, an aerospace consultant who used to work for the European jetmaker. "Airbus has had a terrible year."
BIG-GUN SALESMEN. Airbus' stumbles are helping Boeing win over the three carriers: Singapore Airlines, Qantas Airways, and Cathay Pacific Airways. While Singapore and Qantas won't say which jets they intend to buy, industry insiders believe both are leaning toward Boeing. The two carriers are said to be upset by the delays besetting the A380 and want to cut fuel costs.
Cathay Pacific is a closer call, insiders say, and more attuned to price. All three are in the market for 777s or A340s: Singapore and Qantas are considering the 787 vs. the Airbus A350, and Singapore also is interested in the 747 advance, which Boeing says could be launched in December. Says one industry insider: "Singapore looks good. I'd bet on Qantas. Cathay is more quixotic."
Boeing is taking no chances. It has dispatched legendary salesman Larry Dickenson, a senior vice-president for Asia-Pacific sales, to lead the charge. A veteran of the Asian airplane wars, Dickenson is largely responsible for persuading Japan Airlines Corp. and All Nippon Airways Co. (ALNPY) to build their fleets around the 787, 777, and 737 airplanes.
Tapping Dickenson reflects a more aggressive Boeing, say insiders, and one that is willing to play hardball with Airbus super salesman John Leahy -- long the master of the Big Deal. Leahy declined to comment.
CHANGING MARKET. Asia-Pacific has always been the key market for both jetmakers. It has the fastest growth, and it buys the biggest airplanes that generate the most profit. Boeing has hung onto Asia-Pacific even though Airbus eroded its market share in nearly every other region. Even today, Boeing controls nearly 60% of the Asian widebody market -- thanks to its 747 Jumbo jet, long favored by regional carriers for its ability to fly immense distances and seat 415 people, and rising sales of the 777.
Airbus had aimed to supplant the 747 with its 555-seat A380 mega carrier. But as early as 1999, Boeing execs determined -- correctly as it turned out -- that the market was changing. They predicted passengers would prefer to fly nonstop rather than fly through a hub and switch from a big jet to a smaller one. Filling that demand, Boeing figured, would require fleets of smaller, twin-engine planes rather than Airbus' four-engine A340.
At first, some Asian carriers were hesitant about flying immense distances over oceans on two engines. The fear was that if one engine quit, they wouldn't have enough range to make an emergency landing. But during the 1990s, the 777 proved that it could fly long distances with few engine problems. And before long, Asia-Pacific carriers began buying larger versions of the plane that seated more people and flew farther.
"Operationally, the 777 is a brilliant machine," says Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airlines, which operates Boeing and Airbus aircraft. "She flies fast. She flies high. She has extremely good economics."
THRIFTY ON FUEL. Indeed, Boeing's move to twin-engine planes couldn't have come at a better time. Rising fuel prices have prompted carriers to seek out more efficient jets -- and two engines are a whole lot cheaper to operate than four. The 777 burns about 24% less fuel per seat-mile than Airbus' four-engine A340.
That's a huge difference, and some airlines flying A340s -- such as Air Canada (ACHAQ), Austrian Airlines, Singapore, and possibly Qatar -- are looking to replace them with 777s. It's easy to see why there's a backlog of 189 orders for the 777 vs. only 79 for the A340. "You don't need four engines anymore," says Edmund S. Greenslet, editor of The Airline Monitor. "The A340 is going the way of the dinosaur."
Boeing flew its two-engine strategy into the stratosphere when it launched the lightweight, carbon-fiber-based 787 Dreamliner. This new twin-engine jetliner, which will seat between 214 to 250 passengers, will be able to fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Sydney and burn 20% less fuel than existing similar-size twin-engine jetliners. The Dreamliner, so far, has chalked up 293 firm orders and commitments from 24 customers, compared with 143 orders and commitments for Airbus' new, lighter A350.
AHEAD OF ITS TIME? Airbus isn't out of the game by any means. While the A380 may not be a financial success in the near term, it will probably follow the same history as Boeing's 747 and score big in another decade. "It's too early to judge the success of the A380," says Greenslet. "What's clear is that it's not going to be a profit center for them until 2020, but that doesn't mean there won't be a demand for a big airplane eventually."
What's more pressing for Airbus now is defending the markets for medium and large passenger jets. Much will depend on which way Singapore, Qantas, and Cathay decide to fly. This one is definitely Boeing's to lose.
With Carol Matlack in Paris
Holmes is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau