Boeing and Airbus: 40 years of rivalry and one-upmanship – Part one

Forty years ago as the 1969 Paris Air Show unfolded, the world was abuzz over the Boeing 747 and the BAC-Aerospatiale Concorde both whom had just made their first flights just a few months before.

At the same time, European aerospace companies were finalising a consortium to wrest back dominance of the United States in the commercial aviation market.

Within months of the show the European aerospace companies created Airbus Industrie which would take on the industry leaders of the day Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas. Today Airbus SAS and Boeing are the two survivors battling it out in an intense global duopoly.

In a two part series I take you on a look back at the rivalry over the past forty years and the one-upmanship practised by both companies reflected in the aircraft developed and produced.

1969 was clearly for Boeing. Its 747 Jumbo Jet reigned for more than 36 years as the Queen of the skies. It is among the world’s most recognizable aircraft, and was the first wide body ever produced. As of May 2009, 1,416 aircraft have been built, with 107 more in various configurations remaining on order. The next version of the aircraft, the 747-8, is in production and scheduled to enter service in 2010 but the project is highly delayed. The 747 is supposed to be replaced by the Boeing Y3 (part of the Boeing Yellowstone Project) in the future. [Note: I have not covered my beloved Concorde since it is not an Airbus product per se.]

But just as Boeing was celebrating the 747 debut, France and Germany who were later joined by Spain and the United Kingdom set up the Airbus Industrie consortium in 1970 and launched their first plane, the A300. The first twin engine wide-body aircraft, the A300 entered service in 1974 with Air France. The A300 was the first airliner to use just-in-time manufacturing techniques. Complete aircraft sections were manufactured by consortium partners all over Europe. These were airlifted to the final assembly line at Toulouse-Blagnac. Incidentally, today Boeing uses the same technique, ferrying the wings and other parts of the soon to fly 787 Dreamliner from production facilities in the far east. Airbus sold 561 of the planes and the final production A300 an A300F freighter for FedEx, made its initial flight on 18 April 2007 and was delivered on 12 July 2007.

To counter the Airbus A300 and Boeing launched development of its twin-engine wide-body the 767 in 1978 which entered service in 1982. The 767 was conceived and designed in tandem with the narrow-body Boeing 757 twin-engine jet with both aircraft sharing common design features and flight decks. The 767 was followed the A300 cockpit and became the first Boeing wide-body airliner to enter service with a two-person crew flight deck, eliminating the need for a flight engineer. The first 767 entered service in 1982. Though orders started tapering off in the 1990s, updated versions of the plane are still in production, including the 767-400ER (extended range) model. American Airlines has outfitted many of its 767s with the Aviation Partners winglets in a bid to improve the fuel efficiency. There have been over 1,000 767s ordered with over 900 delivered as of 2009. The -300/-300ER models are the most popular variants, accounting for approximately two-thirds of all 767s ordered. As of 2009, Delta Air Lines operates the largest 767 fleet of any airline.

Airbus next widened its product offering and offered a replacement for the venerable Boeing 727 three-engine jet, the most popular aircraft at the time. At the same time the A320 also targeted Boeing’s best seller the narrow-body 737. After the oil price shocks of the late 1970s, the new Airbus would be of the same size, yet offer vastly improved operating economics and significantly quieter engines. The digital technology in the A320 would herald a two generation technological leap over the all-analogue Boeing 727 and a generation ahead of the hybrid Boeing 737-300/-400/-500 series. The new Airbus was also wider than the 737s by almost eight inches providing passengers that crucial extra inch of shoulder space in the same six abreast seating layout. In 1984 Airbus launched the A320 and again Air France was the launch customer, The airliner became the best selling aircraft for Airbus, who quickly developed two shorter and smaller versions, the A319 and A318, and the longer and larger A321. By the end of May 2009 a total of 6,321 aircraft of the A320 family have been ordered and 3,893 delivered. The order tally went up today with Qatar Airways announcing an order for 20 Airbus A320s and four A321s. The A320 family is the second best-selling jet airliner family of all time after its primary competition, the Boeing 737 family which recently crossed the 6,000th aircraft delivery mark.

Do visit Bangalore Aviation tomorrow and read the continuation of this 40 year old rivalry.

Images courtesy Wikipedia and Airbus SAS

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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