The Week In: Commercial Aviation -- And Then There Were Two

Damn, I’ve got to get to Russia, soon.

For those of us more interested in the section of the Expedia email revealing what plane is making the trip than, say, that the flight leaves at 6:30 in the morning, this week’s announcement of the conglomeration of all Russian aircraft companies was a call to action.

On my master list of all the types of aircraft I have flown in my life, there is an as-of-yet empty column marked “Ilyushin.” This list is metaphorical of course (or is it?), but if it did exist, the “Ilyushin” heading is likely to remain sad and empty, and the chances of it being filled will quickly become inversely proportional to the odds of me dying in a fiery plane crash over the Caucuses, as that loud, dirty, and inefficient IL-86 finally decides it has had enough. I might as well fill that section of the list with a sad face right now. If I had it.

The Russians announced last week that they would soon be incorporating every aircraft manufacturer in the country into a single, largely state-operated design bureau. That’s Mikoyan, Sukhoi, Tupolev, Irkut, Ilyushin, and Yakovlev, all folded into one supergroup, dubbed the United Aircraft Corporation. The new entity will focus exclusively on smaller regional jets and cargo carriers, as well as the requisite military aircraft.

Aeroflot, Russia’s national carrier (which has one of the most fantastically Cyrillic logos), was largely responsible for this action when it refused to accept any offers from Ilyushin to fill a massive upcoming order for more planes. Since Russia is the only place Ilyushin planes fly anyway, except for when they’re hauling god knows what sort of cargo to Africa and occasionally crashing in the most horrifying way possible, it looked like a pretty good time to give it up. Their latest generation widebody, the IL-96, is even banned completely from many European airports, on account of its excessive noise and exhaust output. Russian aircraft being excessively loud and noisy and unsafe? Really? Really?

In reading about this move, which is interesting in its own right, an even more shocking fact became clear: Now, the world has only two corporations producing widebody passenger aircraft. As of Monday, it was Airbus, Boeing, and Ilyushin. Now only the biggest two survive. Which one V. Putin will select for his own personal Air Force One equivalent after his current rides get old remains to be seen (He now occasionally cruises in a totally tricked out IL-62, which is notable as being the only widebody jet in active surface without powered flight controls, i.e., everything is still moved by cables attached to the steering yoke, as well as the occasional IL-96, which suffered a notable Putin-related mishap in Finland in 2005).

But still. Only two manufacturers of aircraft. For the entire world.

Making this head to head showdown even more hardcore is the complete divergence of the two giants’ basic strategies for the foreseeable future. Airbus placed huge faith in the long-range, high-density market with the A380, a double-decker monster capable of carrying up to 850 people in a single-class configuration, replacing Boeing’s 747 as the largest aircraft in commercial service (a title the 747 held for 35 years). One of the A380’s earliest adopters, Singapore Airlines, will begin to put its first beluga-esque A380s into service later this year.

Boeing, however, has placed a sizable stake of their future in the 787, which is in many ways the complete opposite of the A380. Holding 250-300 passengers, the 787 will specialize in short to medium range trips, and will operate with an emphasis on increased efficiency, both with its advanced energy-saving engines and an airframe built almost entirely from lightweight composite materials. The 787 is still under final development, and is expected to make its first flight in 2008.

The resources required to develop an entirely new plane are staggering, and the commitment made in doing so is great. That makes the two entirely different new jets from Airbus and Boeing so interesting. With the European air-travel market continuing to explode, with companies like easyJet and Ryanair offering no-frills short haul trips throughout the continent for little more than the applicable taxes on the ticket, the short-range efficiency of the 787 has to make sense. (As does the new Russian UAC conglomerate’s decision to focus resources on a new Russian Regional Jet (RRJ), an even smaller category of sub-100-seat short-range aircraft becoming increasingly popular with discount airlines in the U.S. and Europe. Canada’s version, the CRJ, has done very well, as has the Brazilian-made Embraer ERJ series. I must admit to a double take upon finding out the plane I was to fly from Indianapolis to New York on Continental Airlines was made in Brazil).

In truth, neither company is completely devoted to their respective strategies; Boeing, of course, still has the venerable 747, which after 40 plus years in service is still selling (and will receive a major update using much of the 787’s new technology by the end of the decade), and Airbus continues to operate some of the world’s most successful medium-range jets in its A320 series.

But still, the battle is fierce, with each company practically groveling for order commitments, offering extensive benefits to adopting national air carriers with domestic manufacturing agreements, etc. It will be interesting to see what happens.

As for me, I’d still like to at least see an Ilyushin in person before they all begin to accumulate Russian rust (the most steadfast of the rusts). The Il-62, with it’s long and slender pencil-like body. The beautifully-humpbacked Il-76. The pointy-nosed and squinty Il-96.

Alright, I’ll stop now.

Cosmodrome Categories: