Are you ready for the roaring ’20s? Taking a look at newer and emerging platforms By Thom Patterson
INNOVATION & TECHNOLOGY

Are you ready for the roaring ’20s? Taking a look at newer and emerging platforms By Thom Patterson

It’s truly an exciting time in aviation history. The convergence of ultra-efficient engines, revolutionary building materials and an increasingly global economy is creating a virtually unprecedented era.

The past decade has seen first flights for several new designs as well as significant technological improvements for variants of already existing types.

What flew for the first time in the 2010s? Here’s a quick list:

Single-aisle airliners include Bombardier’s CS100 and CS300, later to be acquired by Airbus and rebranded the A220-100 and A220-300, as well as the A320neo and A321neo. Also, the 737 Max flew for the first time this past decade.

Now the world awaits word on when the grounded airliner will be certified to fly again.

Also entering service in the 2010s were several wide-body twinjets – such as the two successful main variants of the A350-XWB family and Boeing’s 787-8. Eventually all three Dreamliner variants earned success during the decade.

As we roar into the ’20s, the new decade promises to bring additional platforms aimed at supporting skyrocketing projections for passengers and cargo.

Embraer will spend this year and next working to certify its E175-E2, after its maiden flight last December. 2020 has already seen the first flight of Boeing’s 777-9X — a 21st century improvement on the beloved 777. Plagued with delays — the first Japanese-made commercial jetliner — Mitsubishi’s SpaceJet M90 — could finally be delivered to its launch customer ANA next year.

Airbus’s freakishly large Beluga XL flew its first operational flight this past January. Eventually five more of the transport airplanes are expected to be produced.

Also this year, the fate of the beleaguered 737 Max is expected to play out — an unprecedented scenario that has forced hundreds of jets to sit fallow on the ground since March of 2019.

With so much activity, it seems like a good time to take a look at how some of the newer platforms are faring. But let’s also scan the horizon for what new designs and variants lay ahead.

Airbus A350-XWB

Let’s start with the wide-bodies. With two years of service under its belt, the A350-1000 has gone a long way toward earning the title “king of the long haulers.” Built to fly at least 350 passengers more than 19 hours without refueling, the A350-1000 has been proving itself on marathon non-stop routes like Hong Kong-Washington Dulles and between Doha and Houston, Texas.

Airbus Image
Airbus Image

Qantas Airlines announced last December it has tentatively chosen the A350-1000 for its Project Sunrise ultra long-haul routes in excess of 10,000 miles beginning in 2023. Possible routes could fly between Perth and London and between the Australian east coast and London or New York City.

The carrier specifically called out the A350’s reliable Rolls-Royce XWB engines as a factor in its decision.

If the final decision by Qantas gives the program a green light, Airbus plans to increase the aircraft’s fuel capacity and MTOW.

No word from Airbus about whether it plans to build a stretched version of the -1000. “Airbus is always studying how we can evolve our aircraft family portfolio,” said Airbus spokesman Martin Fendt. “The recent selection by Qantas of the A350-1000 – over the competing 777X – for their ‘Sunrise’ requirement is one of many examples that Airbus is adopting the right strategy.”

The final decision, says Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, may come down to weight.

“The 777-8X is a good plane,” Aboulafia said. ”Ultimately it’s got a heavier structure and greater weight than the 777-9X, so the A350-1000 probably has the advantage. But we’ll see.”

Boeing 777-9X

Speaking of the 777X, the program achieved an important milestone last January 25, when the jet flew for the first time.

The 777-9X variant — distinguished by its extreme length and wide wingspan — took off from Paine Field in Everett, Washington, and flew for 4 hours before landing at nearby Boeing Field in Seattle.

Boeing Image
Boeing Image

“The 777X flew beautifully,” said chief test pilot Capt. Van Chaney shortly after touching down. Testing continued into February with typical flights clocking ground speeds around 400 mph and reaching maximum altitudes from 14,000 feet to nearly 21,000 feet.

The 777X design aims to save fuel with large, light-weight, carbon fiber wings which are produced in gigantic pressurized ovens at Boeing’s Everett factory. The fuselage is aluminum, saving the 777X from steep production costs incurred by the carbon-fiber fuselage Dreamliner.

Boeing says the 777X – powered by all-new GE9X engines — will be 12% more fuel efficient and deliver 10% lower “operating economics” than its competition. It’s interesting to note that General Electric has proclaimed the GE9X as the largest turbine engine in the world – with a diameter big enough to fit the fuselage of a 737.

In fact, the 777-9X is now the world’s largest twinjet, seating about 425 passengers and offering a range of more than 8,200 nm.

Aboulafia is excited about the new platform. “But it’s going to have fantastic costs for that size class,” he said. “Eventually the market will look again at larger planes. It’s just going to take a while to play out. But when they do, that design is going to be in its own unique category.”

Airbus A330-800

Another wide-body, the Airbus A330-800 is the world’s newest large airliner to achieve type certification. The fuel-saving twinjet achieved a joint stamp of approval in February from the EASA and the FAA.

Expected to enter service later this year, the -800 is the second of Airbus’s two A330neos (neo stands for New Engine Option), both of which sport fuel-efficient Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 engines. Overall the -800 burns 25% less fuel than older competing models. The larger A330-900 won certification in 2018.

Airbus Image
Airbus Image

Compared with the earlier A330 types (-200ceo and -300ceo, Current Engine Option) the A330neos offer longer range and higher seating capacity. The -800 comes with a range of up to 8,150 nm and typically seats up to 260 passengers in three classes.

Contributing to its range and efficiency, the -800 also boasts a new wing design and light-weight, super-strong carbon composite Sharklets.

While the platform is based on that of the already very efficient A330ceo wing, they are quite different internally and externally.

“The A330ceo wing contains elements carried over from the four-engine A340 airliner – in the form of provisions for the mounting of the A340’s outer-wing engines and pylons,” Fendt said. “In the A330neo however, these structures were removed altogether from the design, saving considerable weight and reducing cost and complexity.”

Another significant change on the A330-800, Fendt said, includes new 3D spanwise “wing twist” aerodynamic efficiency optimization applied to the wing design.

The Sharklets add as much as four meters to the overall span compared to the A330ceo, according to Airbus.

“What’s really interesting is that with this span extension, the A330neo’s wing achieves an efficiency-boosting aspect-ratio of 11.3 – higher than any commercial airliner in operation today, even counting the Boeing 787,” Fendt said.

Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner

Nearly a decade after Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner first entered service, sales for the game-changing carbon-composite wide-body have been slowing down.

Last October Boeing announced it would reduce Dreamliner production from 14 to 12 each month and reports say the company is considering further cuts.

Nonetheless, in February, Dreamliner launch customer ANA announced new orders for nine 787-9s and 11 of the largest variant — the 787-10. Both variants are powered by GEnx engines.

The lightweight carbon-fiber fuselage and wings and the fuel-saving powerplants give these jets a range between 6,400 nm and 7,600 nm, burning 20% less fuel than older competing models. The -8 models seat around 240 passengers in two-classes. The -9 seats nearly 300 passengers while the -10 variant – manufactured in Charleston, South Carolina – seats about 330 passengers in a two-class configuration.

The airframer said it expects output to eventually bounce back in a few years, supported by projected market growth in Asia and airlines looking to replace aging wide-bodies. In Southeast Asia alone Boeing is predicting 4,500 planes will be needed over the next 20 years.

BelugaXL

When you take an Airbus A330 airliner and turn it into one of the world’s largest transport aircraft, people sit up and take notice.

Airbus Image
Airbus Image

That explains all the attention in January, when the first Airbus BelugaXL went operational.

Eventually Airbus hopes to build five additional BelugaXLs, which boast the largest cargo bay cross-section of any cargo aircraft. All six BelugaXLs are expected to be in service by 2023.

The BelugaXL is designed to ferry huge Airbus components (such as wings for the A350) from production facilities to assembly locations in Hamburg, Germany; Tianjin, China; and Toulouse.

Powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Trent 700s, BelugaXL is the big brother of the original Belugas — the Airbus A300-600ST aka BelugaST — which entered service in 1995.

There are five BelugaSTs and Airbus says their future is “under consideration” — but the planes could continue flying for another 10-20 years.

Single-Aisle Sensations

The aviation industry continues to buzz about last June’s announcement that Airbus is taking its A321LR single-aisle airliner and adding extra fuel tanks to extend its range by up to 700 nm (1,300 km).

Expected to enter service in 2023, this new long-range variant powered by CFM International LEAP 1A engines will boast a range of up to 4,700 nm (8,700 km) while burning 30% less fuel per seat than previous generation jets built by competitors.

Passenger capacity will be 180-220 in a two-class configuration. To handle extra weight from the added fuel the XLR’s landing gear will be re-engineered to be more robust.

Airbus offered some insight about how that idea began and how it came to fruition.

“Clearly, when we first offered the A321 we engineered-in a capability for growth in the future,” Fendt said. “However, exactly how we would develop and ‘incrementally innovate’ this aircraft family, and in which direction, was something that we would reassess as the market requirements evolved over time.”

What directly led Airbus to move forward with the XLR was airline feedback that showed a market for an aircraft that could fly farther “and create more value by bringing 30% lower fuel burn per seat than the previous-generation competitor aircraft – such as the out-of-production Boeing 757,” Fendt said.

Airbus is selling the A321XLR as a lower-cost, single-aisle aircraft suited for longer and less heavily travelled routes. Many of those routes can now only be served by larger wide-bodies, which are less efficient for those types of operations.

“We all knew the A321 had a lot of potential,” said Aboulafia. “What’s interesting about the XLR and the A321 in general is just how much more you can do to it, like new wings and new engines.”

Aboulafia points out the potential of even more development of the A321. Imagine a “220- to 240-seat jet with 5,000 nm range,” he said. “There’s just so much route development that can take place with that kind of product.”

A380 Production Ending

In fact, there’s a connection between the A321XLR and the world’s largest passenger jet, the Airbus A380.

When production ends for the A380 in 2021, its assembly line in the Lagardere production facility in Toulouse will be converted to produce the A321XLRs.

It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed since the first A380 took flight. During that time, more than 240 A380s have rolled off the assembly line.

The new A321 line at Lagardere will be “digitally enabled,” Airbus said. It’s a step toward Airbus’s goal to modernize the entire A320 production system.

Described as a “next-generation final assembly line,” it’s expected to be ready by mid-2022. Airbus says it will “optimize industrial flow” by increasing A321 production capacity as well as flexibility.

Adding the new Toulouse line will increase the number of A321 assembly plants to three, including the current German facility in Hamburg and the U.S. plant in Mobile, Alabama.

The A321XLR’s acquiring of the A380 production facility is an appropriate turn of events in light of current market trends, Aboulafia said.

Who would have thought that the development of long-range single-aisle airliners would have such industry-wide repercussions? Increased fuel efficiency and longer range are allowing for the fragmentation of larger routes that are the lifeblood of high-capacity airliners like the A380.

“Route fragmentation throughout the globe is still playing out and it’s a far more long-term and profound process than I ever would have guessed,” Aboulafia said.

“We all knew route fragmentation was bound to kill A380, right? But what’s amazing is it just keeps going down and down and down and planes just keep getting smaller and smaller. Right now of course the big beneficiaries are the 787 and A350, but you’re starting to see it trickle down to the A321 a little. You could argue that the most promising aircraft right now in this environment is the A321XLR.”

New Boeing Clean Sheet?

Planes like the A321XLR put pressure on Airbus’s rival Boeing to embark on a new clean sheet design as a way to compete.

“At this point it’s clean sheet or nothing,” Aboulafia said. “In other words, do you cede the fastest growing market in aviation to Airbus? Or do you do something new? There’s no third choice.”

For years Boeing officials have been talking about the possibility of an “NMA” – a new midmarket airplane aimed at a 225-seat jet and a larger airliner seating 275.

This past January, Boeing’s new CEO Dave Calhoun, said: “The NMA project is going to be a new clean sheet of paper.”

But reports suggest the NMA project is being shelved. Instead, Boeing may be considering a new 200- to 240-seat design with a range of 4,700 nm to compete with the A321XLR, according to Aviation Week.

“If Boeing moves quick, they can offer a product that really does outflank the A321 — maybe a plane that gets 5,500 nm — something along those lines — with 220-250 passenger capability,” said Aboulafia.

“I’m not really clear what the technological enablers are for that,” he said. “Will they go with composite wings and a metal tube? Whatever they’re going to do, they’ve got to do something. Otherwise they basically give 10 or 15 points of the market share to Airbus.”

Troubles with the Boeing 737

You can’t talk about Boeing now without including the airframer’s unprecedented troubles with the 737 Max – which have been grounded by aviation authorities worldwide since March 2019 after two tragic crashes killed 346 people.

The idea behind the Max was to create a new line of 737 variants by augmenting existing designs with new efficient CFM International Leap-1B engines that changed the 737’s traditional aerodynamic characteristics.

The 737 Max’s new flying characteristics were to be offset by anti-stall software called MCAS – the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System – which has been blamed for the crashes — Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 less than five months later.

This past January, Boeing said it was temporarily halting all Max production, while the plane maker and the FAA work to fix the problems with MCAS.

A year after the historic grounding of the 737 Max – including the -8 and -9 variants – it remains unclear when the type might be re-certified by the FAA and re-enter service.

“… we are currently estimating the ungrounding of the 737 Max will begin during mid-2020,” Boeing said in a statement in January. “Returning the MAX safely to service is our number one priority, and we are confident that will happen. We acknowledge and regret the continued difficulties that the grounding of the 737 MAX has presented to our customers, our regulators, our suppliers, and the flying public.”

Other problems have been reported with the 737 Max during the grounding, including a wiring issue and the discovery of foreign object debris inside fuel tanks.

“I’m still bullish on at least the -8,” said Aboulafia, who suggests rebranding the plane without the word “Max.”

“The -9 and -10 appear to be very badly unmatched by the A321,” he said. “But I think the -8 will be around for a solid dozen years in production. It’ll do its job.”

737 Next Generation

The grounding came shortly after Boeing ended production of passenger versions of its previous 737 line – known as 737 Next Generation. 737 NGs garnered more than 7,000 orders during a 22-year run.

Boeing Image
Boeing Image

Then, more bad news for the 737: The discovery of hairline cracks last year in structural features called “pickle forks” prompted the FAA to order inspections of all 737 NGs.

Pickle forks connect the fuselage with wings and landing gear. So far, inspections reportedly have revealed cracks in pickle forks in only a small percentage of 737NGs.

Airbus A220

Air Canada is the latest customer flying Airbus’s A220-300 – the single-aisle clean-sheet designed by Bombardier. It took delivery of its first A220-300 last December, the first of 45 on order and the first carrier in North America to operate the type. JetBlue is scheduled to begin flying the first of its 70 ordered A220-300s later this year.

Before Airbus bought controlling interest in the A220 program in 2018, Bombardier had branded the plane the CSeries. The CS100 and CS300 were described as the first clean sheet design of a large, single-aisle airliner in nearly 30 years.

The A220’s unusual wing construction process involves infusing its carbon-fiber reinforced wings with liquid resin.

Airbus Image
Airbus Image

Air Canada’s A220-300s seat 137 passengers in two classes. The smaller A220-100 — operated by Delta Air Lines and Swiss International Air Lines — seats from 100-120 in a dual-class configuration. Both types have a range of about 3,400 nm.

Airbus says the jets are the “quietest and most eco-friendly aircraft in its category,” thanks in part to efficient twin Pratt & Whitney PW1500G geared turbofans. The A220 has more than 650 orders so far. More than 100 A220s are currently in service among six operators.

Regional Jets

Mitsubishi’s SpaceJet M90 regional airliner — which was scheduled to enter service this year — won’t be delivered to launch customer All Nippon Airways until 2021, Mitsubishi announced in February.

The 90-seat jet and a smaller SpaceJet type called the M100 which seats 76 passengers in a three-class configuration have been beset with production delays, bureaucratic miscues and cost overruns since the program launched in 2008. Both variants are engined with Pratt & Whitney PW1200G PurePower Geared Turbofans. The M100 is expected to enter service in 2024.

“The market will definitely want another next-generation regional jet,” said Aboulafia. “I think SpaceJet will have a decent future as long as Mitsubishi sticks with it.”

New E-Jet E2

Another new regional airliner — Embraer’s E175-E2 — flew for the first time last December, kicking off a 24-month testing program.

Seating 80 in a two-class configuration, the E175-E2 is the third jewel in the Brazilian plane-maker’s crown of of E-Jet E2s. The jet is powered by twin Pratt & Whitney PW1000G geared turbofans.

The E175 was preceded by the larger E190-E2 and the E195-E2. Embraer boasts about their lower maintenance costs and fuel-saving benefits.

Other Newcomers

China’s state-owned airplane manufacturer Comac (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China) has been working to bring products to market since 2008.

Comac Image
Comac Image

Comac has delivered more than 20 ARJ21-700 regional jets so far, exclusively to Chinese operators, including Chengdu Airlines, Genghis Khan Airlines and Jiangxi Air.

This aircraft, which seats 90 passengers in an all-economy configuration, is powered by twin, rear-mounted GE CF34 engines.

“It’s incredibly relevant – for 1986,” Aboulafia quipped. “It’s exactly what happens when you have government-owned enterprise designing a science fair experiment.”

Comac also has been working to put a larger single-aisle passenger airliner into service. The C919 — which completed its first flight test in 2017 — is designed to seat about 150 passengers. It’s outfitted with wing-mounted CFM International Leap-1C engines. A Chinese-built AECC CJ-1000A high-bypass turbofan engine is also being developed for the C919.

The C919 has more than 1000 purchase commitments and more than 300 firm orders, primarily from inside China. It’s expected to enter service with launch customer China Eastern Airlines as early as 2021.

Irkut MC-21

After a maiden flight in 2017 and several production delays, Russia’s Irkut MC-21 single-aisle twinjet is expected to enter service in 2021.

It’s powered by Pratt & Whitney PW1000G high-bypass turbofans — which also fly Airbus’s A220, Embraer’s E-Jet E2s and Mitsubishi’s SpaceJet.

Designed by Irkut, the MC-21 is manufactured by United Aircraft Corporation, which is partially owned by the Russian government.

All in all, it looks like the roaring ‘20s are gearing up to be a dynamic decade for the aviation industry. We’ll keep you posted.

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