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Want major new aircraft designs? Wait until 2030

Boeing and Airbus are tweaking the tried-and-true instead of going all out for all-new. Here's why the jet-age pizzazz has been grounded.

Airbus' A330neo, a new take on an old design, effectively replaces its all-new A350-800 XWB.
Airbus' A330neo is a new take on an old design. Airbus

FARNBOROUGH, UK -- Over the last century, the aviation industry has steadily pushed ahead with bold new designs. But with a shift toward more incremental improvements, the airplanes of tomorrow will look a lot like the airplanes of today.

At the Farnborough International Airshow here last week, top aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus announced new passenger jets. But the difficulties of designing all-new aircraft, combined with strong airline demand, mean the two companies have begun relying more on updates to existing products rather than ground-up redesigns.

The airlines aren't standing still, but are refitting older craft with new fuel-efficient engines, updated wings, and other improvements.

"You do not need to do a new program to develop these new technologies," Ray Conner, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in an interview. "You're able to take the things you create and bring them to other aircraft, to develop a really good airplane that meets the market needs."

The biggest example that emerged at the show was the launch of Airbus' A330neo, named for the "new engine option" that the France-based company is bringing to the older twin-aisle jet.

"We are are looking for faster incremental improvements. This is one of the best examples we could do," said Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier.

Also in the limelight were Airbus' smaller A320neo, Boeing's 737 Max, and Boeing's bigger 777X.

Boeing and Airbus announced hundreds of new orders at the show, which is a major event on the aerospace calendar for both civilian and military aircraft.

The trend toward incremental change means that passengers hoping for a significantly better flying experience and aviation buffs excited by the latest technology should probably rein in their hopes.

A rendering of Boeing's 777X in Emirates livery.
A rendering of Boeing's 777X in Emirates livery. Boeing

But shareholders can take heart: incremental improvements are a lower-risk course of action than developing all-new designs like Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which was supposed to arrive in 2008 but actually took until 2011.

Even with less reliance on dramatic new designs, Airbus and Boeing have huge numbers of orders to fulfill as Asian airlines boom and all airlines struggle with high fuel prices.

"There's a seven-year backlog without even taking new orders," said Ben Moores, a senior analyst with IHS Jane's. "You're going to see a doubling of wide-body production over the next several years."

That's why the industry is focusing on faster production and updates to existing designs rather than new jets that are costly to design, test, and bring to market.

"Getting a platform certified is an extremely expensive business," Moores said. "There's not much point in designing a whole new platform when you just want to change a few bibs and bobs."

Updates big and small

Incremental improvements need not be insignificant. For example, the 777X, due in 2020, will acquire innovations that came with the 787 Dreamliner. That includes new composite wings instead of traditional aluminum designs; a tail assembly that uses new, more aerodynamic materials; bigger windows; and a more comfortable, higher interior air pressure.

Much of the 777X will be the same as the current 777, though, and many of the changes coming in future years are less significant.

"The A330 is just an engine change," Conner said. "The 787 Max is an engine change. The A320 is a new engine."

On top of that, Airbus' attempt to bring a significant new design to market, the A350 XWB (extra-wide body) suffered a blow with one of the three planned models, the 800. At Farnborough, Brégier acknowledged that the A350-800 was effectively a flop even as he boasted that the company expects to sell more than 1,000 A330neo jets. That's on top of more than 3,000 A320neo orders.

Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier
Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier Stephen Shankland/CNET

Incremental updates don't guarantee success, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly. Boeing's 747-8, an update to its iconic but decades-old 747 design, "has been such a slow seller that perhaps Boeing shouldn't even have bothered," he said.

But flops are less painful with upgrades than with all-new designs such as Airbus' even bigger rival to the 747, the 550-passenger double-decker A380. The A380 hasn't done as badly in the marketplace as the 747, "but this is less of a problem for Boeing than the A380 is for Airbus because...the 747-8 was a far lower-risk proposition."

High fuel costs mean new engines

A major incentive for updates is better fuel efficiency -- in particular fuel efficiency per passenger. Fuel efficiency is a huge constraint, with oil prices high and not expected to drop, Moores said.

The A330neo is 14 percent more fuel-efficient than the A330ceo (current engine option), mostly because of its new engines but also because it squeezes 10 more seats by reconfiguring lavatories and crew galley areas. The 737 Max 8 gets a 20 percent fuel-efficiency boost through new engines and 11 more seats.

Since Boeing introduced the current 737NG (next generation) in 1997, the company has improved its fuel efficiency by 6 percent. The 737 Max will improve it another 20 percent over that, and each percentage point is worth about $600,000 in savings over the life of the plane, said Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing's commercial airplane division.

Airbus has its own arguments prepared, though. The new engines, passenger accommodation, and wing aerodynamics on the A330neo mean that "we achieve the equivalent [fuel consumption] of the 787-8," Brégier said. And the A330neo benefits from the A330's proven reliability, pilot certifications, and other incumbent advantages.

Next big steps

Innovation is certainly not dead -- it will just be a long time before the next big bang arrives beyond the 787 Dreamliner and A350 XWB.

Boeing's 787-9 taking off at the Farnborough International Airshow.
Boeing's 787-9 takes off at the Farnborough International Airshow. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The cycle time for big redesigns "used to be every 10 years. It takes that kind of time to develop new engines and new airframe technology," Conner said. But now it looks like it will be closer to 20 years, Moores said, when aircraft manufacturers choose to save significant weight by replacing today's hydraulic controls with electrical controls for plane wings and other control surfaces.

"They'll start looking at all-electric aircraft in the 2020s for production in the first half of the 2030s," Moores said.

Airbus thinks electric and hybrid-electric aircraft have a future, but absent major improvements in battery technology, that won't extend to larger aircraft that carry the vast majority of passengers.

The long wait for major conventional jet improvements could give Boeing an advantage because the 787 is a more radical redesign than the A350 XWB. The 787 uses lots of composite materials like carbon fiber for its wings and fuselage, but the A350 sticks with traditional aluminum. "It's a lot lower risk," Moores said, and it'll still sell well, but Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said at the show the 787's new technology gives Boeing a "capability and performance advantage for the next or 20 or 30 years."