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:: November 2012 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Foreign Language School Dropouts,

Now and then, I’ll get an email from a foreign pal referring to “aircrafts.” Native English speakers recognize this as a non-word (the plural of “aircraft” is of course “aircraft”) but it’s an easy mistake to make. Besides, it’s churlish to criticize foreigners’ English when my own efforts to learn other languages can be termed “pathetic.” But let’s salvage something from their mistake. I propose that the non-word “aircrafts” be applied to a class of programs that has emerged in recent years. If “Aircraft Program” refers to a new plane, “Aircrafts Program” should connote an overambitious family of new aircraft launched right out of the box.

There are many examples of Aircrafts Programs. Most don’t go well. This month saw important developments concerning variants within two of the most notable (or egregious) Aircrafts Programs, the F-35 and A350XWB. Each tells an interesting tale.

First, there’s the F-35B. In a somewhat bizarre (yet explicable) move, the USMC stood up its first operational squadron earlier this month. Any casual observer should be expected to roll their eyes and make air quotes while using the term “operational” here. Basically, the planes can take off and land, and not much else. The F-35B has commonality with all the other JSF models, except for the small difference (again, cue air quotes and rolled eyes around “small”) that it can go vertical. It’s funny. When it started, people compared JSF/JAST with the TFX/F-111, an early example of an Aircrafts Program. But I don’t remember anyone saying “yeah, but the F-111 never had to go vertical.”

The F-35B is part of a baroque collection of Marine-specific equipment, including the V-22, UH-1Y (a $20+ million Huey), AH-1Z, CH-53K, and other bespoke platforms. But in contrast with other expensive programs, the F-35B and all its USMC cohorts get all the cash they need. The Congressional Marine lobby isn’t as powerful as it once was, but it’s powerful enough to keep all priorities funded.

This explains why the F-35B will survive. The B’s existence has greatly complicated development and flight testing for the other two JSF variants. But the JSF program itself, to ensure survival against heavy odds, has always needed to keep the Marines on board. To do that, it needed to include a STOVL model, because the Marines were unwilling to imagine life before 1975, when the Harrier liberated them from the tyranny of big deck Navy carriers. The USMC’s proclamation of F-35B operational capability is technically dubious, but it does accurately reflect the reality that B survival is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

The A350XWB was the other Aircrafts Program to see a big change in November, but unlike the F-35 I doubt it will survive with all its variants intact. When Airbus launched the A350XWB, they cheerfully offered three versions spanning 250/300/350 seats, with an unspecified “common engine type across the family,” and, incredibly enough, exactly the same very long range (8,500 nmi) for each variant. This was based on wishful thinking and nothing else.

The A350XWB-1000 has since lost some commonality, but has gained market appeal as Boeing keeps pushing out the 777-X, most recently to the early 2020s. But the -800 is best regarded as a practical joke by Airbus to test the theory that some airlines will buy any damn thing no matter how completely preposterous. Looking at the specifications, either the 787-8 or -9 should be able to outperform the A350-800 by a wide margin.

This month, Qatar Airways passed the test, as did Afriqiyah. Both switched their -800 orders to non-stupid versions of the A350, leaving behind just 92 orders for the smaller variant. This list includes five orders for Kingfisher, which Airbus keeps on the books for nostalgia and because Europe doesn’t have an SEC.

The A350XWB family, like the F-35B and all other Aircrafts Programs, was created to maximize market exposure and to maximize the business case. But more than that, when the A350 was proposed Airbus was eager to show that the disastrous A380 launch decision was in the past, and that the future would be a clean slate. In other words, the company could recover from the A380 and still compete effectively in all market segments. The gradual death of the A350XWB-800 shows that isn’t the case.

Airbus, which still faces serious resource constraints, needs to make tough decisions about the 200/300-seat segment. Choice One is to persist, Charge Of The Light Brigade style, with the -800, drawing resources away from the better variants, and hoping there are enough dumb bunnies out there to buy this thing. Choice Two is a major A330 upgrade, an idea that’s been rumored over the past year. Choice Three is to abandon the 200/300-seat segment.

I’d recommend Choice Two. The A330 is a proven performer with a very strong commercial record. Resurrecting the original A350 (pre-XWB, when it was just a re-engined and upgraded A330) would be an ironic decision, but a smart one. For transatlantic routes, it would probably compete successfully with the 787-8/9. Airbus has already had some success growing the A330s’ capabilities, most recently getting MTOW to 242 tons and range above 6,000 nmi. They could get an A330Neo in service after the A350XWB-1000 and before the end of the decade.

This option wouldn’t be painless. There would be developmental cost and risk for the A330 Neo. It would complicate Airbus’s future production roadmap and damage A350XWB program accounting (although a lack of -800 sales will do that too). But tough choices like these are necessary with Aircrafts Programs. Boeing launched the 787 as an Aircrafts Program too, and later dealt with the consequences. The -3 version, optimized for intra-Asia routes, was killed before any CFRP was cut. The 787-10, when finally launched, will arrive about five years later than originally envisaged at the start of the 787 family launch. It will also be less ambitious than the original 787-10 proposal. Imagine if the 747 had been launched this way: “And the 747-400 will offer 7,500 nmi range with 420 passengers. It will enter service in 1973.”

In conclusion, let’s be diplomatic towards our foreign friends, and give their mot faux a home. Then let’s destroy that home. Let’s stop Aircrafts Programs, with their overgrown out of the box families of variants, from happening at all. We’d vanquish bad program management and bad English with one stroke.

I recently got an email touting a study of “The Global Military Rotorcrafts Market,” proving what Tom Friedman and Dilbert have been saying for years: there’s someone in Elbonia waiting to take my job. Until they do, Teal will still issue Aircraft (not Aircrafts) market reports. This month’s include the Phenom/Legacy series, King Air, T/A-50/KT-1, ARJ21, MRJ, AW129, and NH90 (the last, by the way, is a classic Rotorcrafts Program, now up to 23 different variants for 14 customers). Have a great holiday season.

Yours, Until The A350-700 Proves Me Wrong,
Richard Aboulafia
 

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