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30 June 2006

Now boarding

In the U.S., this coming weekend is a huge one for leisure travel. A lot of people will be flying. And if you're like me, the process of boarding an airplane can be, shall we say, a real challenge. So I was intrigued recently to see some coverage lately of the newest ideas for "smarter" boarding.

One idea being tried out is doing away with the standard system of boarding by row, starting with the rear of the airplane. The new concept involves letting the quickest passengers get on the airplane first. Seats will still be assigned, but under this system you board when you're ready.

Maybe you've flown on an airline that boards in zones for the economy cabin. Recently some airlines have been trying out a "window-middle-aisle" approach to boarding. Window seat passengers get to board first, followed by middle, and then aisle, as a way to reduce how much people have to get up and down in their seats to allow other people by.

Other concepts have this whole thing down to a science, complete with mathematical formulas and computer simulations to determine how many times people are likely to get in each other's way during the boarding process.

Of course, Boeing is continuously studying ways to help the entire industry with boarding. We've been doing some research to see what kinds of things impact the process - although I can't say we've come up with any definitive answers.

Boeing engineer performing interior tests photo

Special "third-age" suits are helping Boeing learn more about how to make the traveling experience more "user-friendly."

We're also looking at how to make experiences inside the airplane better by designing for the various capabilities people on airplanes have. That shows more promise. For instance we've put our engineers inside special "third-age" suits and had them fly on commercial flights, to experience what air travel is like for older people who may have mobility limitations.

Out of this research we're designing new cabin interiors - the 787 Dreamliner, for instance - to be more friendly in terms of easier latches, signage and other features that we may tend to take for granted. That is, until creaky joints or fading eyesight make them a real challenge to negotiate.

While these cabin improvements may not yet make boarding a breeze, we think they're going to make the journey a more pleasant one in the air!


23 June 2006

Big airplanes

There's a saying we hear a lot in the business: big airplanes are hard. Meaning, it's very challenging to build a large commercial airplane.

And in the past week or so, we've all been reminded of this simple truth. In the competitive back and forth between Boeing and Airbus, it's all too easy to overlook the fact that what we do every day - building commercial airplanes - is an extremely complex and demanding endeavor.

And building an all-new airplane is the most challenging of all. Any number of things can happen during development and initial production. Big commercial jetliners are complicated feats of technology. It all has to be done just right.

You may have read media reports about a recent challenge with one of the composite fuselage barrels we've built during the development phase of the 787 Dreamliner. We built eight test fuselage barrels successfully, and with improving quality. And then, as part of our continued efforts to optimize our processes, we tried out a ninth barrel on an experimental tool and with different materials.

Composite fuselage barrel for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner photo

Boeing has successfully built eight test fuselage barrels for the Dreamliner.

This ninth finished barrel was found to be unacceptable, due to some excessive porosity, or trapped gas or air in the fuselage material. Our study of the root cause clearly points to differences between tools and processes used on this barrel compared to the eight others.

So we learn as we go along. And in fact we're moving forward in the certification process for the 787 by producing two additional barrels with the previously proven production method. And the program is progressing on schedule. But this is all part of building a new airplane. We develop solutions during the development phase that ensure success during the production phase.

Now, you may also have read about some problems with Airbus' production and delivery schedule for the A380. They've hit a tough patch. But Airbus has a long history of achievements. They'll work through it and will continue to be a formidable competitor.

As I mentioned, as difficult as airplanes are in general, we know from our own experience that big airplanes are the hardest. All of the typical challenges are only magnified as the airplane's size increases. Creating a new airplane is complex, challenging work. Not everything goes as planned. You expect that issues are going to arise and you expect to deal with them.

Clearly, many in the industry and the media can get so caught up in the competitive "race" that they lose sight of an important fact. While the marketing and selling of an airplane is very visible and can get a lot of ink, it's just part of the story.

The important part of the story is delivering high-quality airplanes. And sometimes getting there can be hard.


14 June 2006

Myth-busting

I just got back to Seattle from a trip that took me to Paris, among other places. And in Paris, as I mentioned the other day, the 62nd Annual General Meeting of IATA was underway last week. The International Air Transport Association is the largest advocacy group worldwide that looks after the interests of airlines.

And the annual meeting is always impressive. Nowhere else do you see more airline CEOs gathered in one place at one time - not even at the big air shows like Farnborough, Paris, Dubai and Singapore.

Aside from the opportunity to catch up with the industry's big movers and shakers, I got to listen to the "state-of-the-industry" address by Giovanni Bisignani, director general and CEO of IATA. Great speech. And there were two things he talked about that struck me as right on target.

First, Giovanni sounded "wake-up calls" for our industry - from airlines and unions, to airports and fuel suppliers, government agencies, and even passengers. I won't go into all the details but you can read more here and see the full text of the speech here.

Famous Fairy Tales: Aviation is the most polluting form of transport image

IATA's director general talked about facts vs. fairy tales in his discussion of aviation's role in the environment.

Giovanni urged a continued focus on efficiency. He also called for more fairness and simplicity in aviation costs and infrastructure. The points were very valid and worth heeding, especially in light of Boeing's ongoing transformation in terms of becoming more lean, efficient, and environmentally-friendly.

Giovanni also took some time to explode a few myths. Recently there's been a lot of rhetoric heating up, portraying airplanes and the aviation industry as enemies of the environment.

Giovanni dispelled some of this talk with facts and data.

  • Myth 1: Air transport is a major cause of global warming and Greenhouse gas emissions.

    Fact: Air transport, which contributes 8% of GDP, contributes a small part of global CO2 emissions - 2% to be exact. The entire transport sector is responsible for 20% of CO2 emissions. Road traffic generates 80% of that, while air transport is responsible for 12%.
  • Myth 2: International air transport is excluded from Kyoto and doing nothing.

    Fact: Domestic aviation is included in the Kyoto protocol. International air transport was excluded, with a commitment to find solutions through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) by the 2007 Assembly. In fact, the industry was concerned about the environment long before Kyoto. Fuel efficiency has improved 70% over 40 years.
  • Myth 3: Aviation is the most polluting form of transportation.

    Fact: Modern aircraft consume 3.5 liters per 100 passenger-kilometers. This is similar to a small compact car but with 6 times the speed.
  • Myth 4: Air travel is a luxury.

    Fact: In many ways, air travel is actually a necessity. 80% of emissions are from trips over 1,500 km, for which there is no economic alternative.

Giovanni summed up his remarks nicely, asking us to not forget "passion." As he pointed out: "We are the world's most exciting industry. We know how to deliver. So there is every reason to be confident about our future and to remove the caution from our optimism."

Good words to live by.

And speaking of living by, next year's IATA annual conference will be just up the road - in Vancouver, Canada. Practically walking distance!


09 June 2006

Growth in the air

This is probably going to be no great surprise to anyone who's flown on an airline lately. More of us are flying, and on more flights.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which just held its annual "World Air Transport Summit" in Paris this week, recently came out with a report that international passenger traffic was up 5.9% in the first quarter of 2006, compared to the same period last year.

The report says passenger load factors averaged a little over 74% during the first quarter, which is close to matching capacity to demand.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also recently released a report on U.S. airline passenger traffic for 2005, both domestic and international. It says that U.S. airlines carried 4.6% more passengers in 2005 compared with 2004. U.S. airlines carried nearly 746 million passengers on their systems last year.

Some interesting findings from the U.S. DOT study:

  • Passengers on U.S. airlines flew on 11 million flights in 2005, which is an increase of about 100,000 flights over 2004
  • Revenue passenger miles were up 5.7%
  • The passenger load factor was up 2.1 points
  • Average nonstop distance flown per departure was up about 2%
  • Average total passenger trip length was up about 1%

And certainly these findings from the U.S. DOT, as well as IATA, confirm the positive trends that Boeing is seeing in the market:

  • People around the world rely on air travel for business, for visiting friends and relatives, and for leisure travel - air travel is an essential service
  • Strong economic growth and liberalizing marketplaces are driving strong traffic growth around the world
  • Traffic demand is exceeding capacity growth, pushing up load factors to historical highs

One interesting development to watch is in the U.S., where domestic capacity is actually forecast to shrink this year as many U.S. carriers move capacity to serve international markets. While in Europe and Asia growing airlines are taking advantage of new opportunities opened by liberalization - new nonstops, more frequencies, new business models.

The result is air travel is becoming available to more and more passengers. High growth markets such as China, India, and others, have announced multiple new air services agreements over the last year. And this just spurs the opening of more new routes.

Now, when I'm asked about these promising trends, I always have to throw in a bit of caution. While the current economic outlook is positive, we have to keep our eyes on some factors, such as continued high oil prices, geopolitical tensions, or a possible avian flu pandemic.

But over the last couple of years we've seen global economies show resilience in the face of tsunamis, hurricanes, and rising oil prices. So for now I'd say we should expect traffic growth to continue along the current trends reflected in these two reports.

And that's good news for our industry - and for travelers.


06 June 2006

On-time arrival

I'm sure everyone's noticed all the media coverage speculating on what Airbus is going to do about the airplane currently known as the A350.

It's a meaningful discussion because it centers on the important "middle of the market" - around 200-400 seats. In the Boeing forecast, that's actually about 90% of the passenger widebody market.

So with all the talk swirling around about what Airbus may or may not do, I thought this would be as good a time as any to re-emphasize where Boeing is right now.

And it goes back to how we've looked at the market, and how it's evolved, especially since the early 1990s when we saw a significant shift in where the market was going.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes came up with a product strategy based on the opening up of new routes due to liberalization, new competition thrust upon airlines, and the demands of passengers who want to save time and reduce connections.

Boeing's widebody 

strategy comparison image

Boeing's widebody strategy is to provide 5 sizes of very efficient airplanes from 200 seats to 450 seats, all having about 8,000 nmi range or more. Airbus is now responding to the success of the 787 and 777 with the 4th iteration of the A350 - which could be more than 4 years late to the market.

These factors resulted in the BCA widebody product strategy that we've been executing for a number of years now: five sizes of airplanes having a range of 8,000 nautical miles or more.

This is a proven strategy, reinforced again and again with the introduction of the 777-300ER and 777-200LR, the fantastic market response to the 787 Dreamliner, and most recently, last fall, with the launch of the 747-8 program. Airlines need multiple sizes of fuel-efficient airplanes that take passengers where they want to go, when they want to go.

We continue to see validation of this approach as airlines add more nonstop flights and frequency growth. We see no sign of consolidation. In fact we're seeing quite the opposite.

So, whatever Airbus decides to do or not to do in response, we feel our products and product strategy are solid. There's no reason for any significant shift in our approach to the marketplace, because we're responding to what our customers and the marketplace are telling us. On the other hand, what Airbus is responding to is Boeing's success in the marketplace.

Of course we continue to monitor what the competition is doing. They remain a very capable and formidable competitor. But the question you have to ask is: will the new Airbus offering arrive too late? In the discussion of airplane programs and product strategy a lot is often made of the concept of "timing." So will this latest "A350" concept arrive "on time?" Or will the market have pulled away by then? And what does this strategy shift and significant resource commitment do to Airbus' long-term product strategy?

Lots to think about. And no doubt we'll be hearing and talking much more about this as we lead up to the Farnborough Air Show in July.