- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

More cosmic questions today, specifically whither American high-tech industry, or at least Boeing.

America was once the world’s manufacturer of airliners. There were Lockheed, Boeing, McDonald Douglas, and Martin. Europe didn’t do serious airliners. The United States ruled the world, airplanewise. It was a good thing because the big liners really helped the balance of trade.

Then they all died out, except Boeing. The reasons were various but the deaths were real. And something called Airbus started up in Europe. It was a bit of a joke. Everybody knew the Europeans couldn’t build airliners.

Except Airbus, which is starting to eat Boeing’s lunch. Boeing might be in bad trouble, people began to think. I heard this over and over from pilots and engineers, and read it in Aviation Week. From time to time I conducted a Dynamic Rumor Profile, which means hoisting a brew with friends in the racket and asking, “What’s coming?” And I got answers like, “They better clean up their act or they’re going to have to get out of commercial and just do military stuff.”

On AviationPlanning.com, an irreverent but informed site, I find the following story: “Big Questions at Boeing: Will America Have An Airframe Industry?”

Says AvPlanning, “We’ve made the observation at our fleet forecast sessions: in 10 years, there will be three global airliner manufacturers — Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer. That may not hold any longer. It could just be two.”

And they don’t mean Boeing.

Now, how could the cutting-edge, all-powerful company lose out to European and Brazilian companies?

Americans said Europe was secretly subsidizing Airbus, and Europeans said Boeing benefited from U.S. military research and development.

AvPlanning says Boeing doesn’t have a lot to sell. The 747 has about run out of life. The 757 is getting squeezed hard by Airbus. The 767 depends on getting the Air Force to lease 110 767s as tankers. That leaves the 737 and 777, with the latter under pressure from the Airbus A320. According to AvPlanning, Boeing doesn’t really have anything in the pipeline.

Boeing is rudderless, wracked by shake-ups, arrogant and lacks imagination. Airbus will go for the throat. And once you lose the market in big-ticket items like airliners, it isn’t easy to come back.

An unknown in the picture is the A380, the roughly 550-passenger enorma-liner under development by Airbus. Airbus thinks the world is ready for an absolutely vast airliner. It would increase efficiency on high-density routes.

The competing theory is that people are sick of the hub-and-spoke system that forces a change of aircraft on almost every flight. People would rather take direct flights, which means smaller aircraft.

If Airbus has guessed wrong, it will be stuck with an unbelievably expensive aircraft that no one will want. If Boeing has guessed wrong, Airbus will control the market.

Says AvPlanning, “With a new management team in place, perhaps Boeing can regain some direction in its commercial airplane business. If it doesn’t, plan on airliner manufacturing going the way of the U.S. electronics industry. Like, overseas.”

Meanwhile, Embraer is selling real airliners and seems to think it is going to continue. No offense to Brazil, but I thought the United States was supposed to be able to compete with South America.

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