When jumbo's not big enough: Huge aircraft taking wing before 2000 are not just flights of fancy. David Bowen reports

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The Independent Online
THE AIRCRAFT industry cannot afford to take too much notice of little things like recessions.

Orders from airlines have slowed right down, but long-term development programmes roll relentlessly on.

Early this month Boeing launched its 777. It has been marketed since 1990 and will still be in service in 25 years' time. The same week a European consortium said it would press ahead with the replacement for Concorde: it might be flying by 2010.

It is surprising to learn, then, that the new plane that some airlines say they will need within the next decade is still little more than a gleam in designers' eyes.

It would be the biggest aircraft ever built, a huge 600 to 800-seater that would cost between dollars 10bn and dollars 15bn to develop, and which the industry has imaginatively dubbed the 'Very Large Aircraft'.

Airliners have been growing relentlessly. The new 777 has the same capacity as the original 747, but the 747's top deck has now been stretched to shoehorn in another 100 passengers. According to Airbus, the average capacity of an airliner will continue to increase, from 171 in 1991 to 242 in 2011.

There are specific reasons why a VLA is needed. 'British Airways has been arguing about the need for a 600-seater by the end of this decade,' says Ron Muddle, the airline's planning director.

'Airports already tend to be very full, and new runway slots are like gold dust. By the end of this decade, we will have run out of capacity if we do not have aircraft bigger than the 747.'

In addition, he says, the airlines need an aircraft that is cheaper to buy and run than the jumbo jet. Not only are there economies of scale from the greater capacity - the 747 carries up to 440 people - but new manufacturing techniques will also help to cut the plane's building cost, and hence its final price.

BA, which had its own team in Seattle during the development of the 777, is involved in joint studies with manufacturers and has a small group working on the VLA itself.

It has not drawn up a design, but has laid down its requirements: the aircraft should carry 600 people in three classes, it should be able to fly non-stop with a full payload from London to Singapore, and its costs should be 20 per cent lower than the 747's.

BA is particularly interested in the VLA because it is based at one of the world's most crowded airports, Heathrow, and because it flies some of the busiest routes in the world, such as London to New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Mr Muddle acknowledges that only those routes will be able to justify the use of a VLA. 'It is unlikely there could be more than one major project,' he says.

Airbus agrees. 'It takes 500 to 600 sales to break even,' a spokesman says. 'If the market is not much bigger than that, it is difficult to see how there could be two versions.'

Airbus's studies, which have been running for a year, have so far been confined to fundamentals, such as the size of the market and new technologies that could be incorporated. 'It is very early days,' the spokesman says.

Like the Concorde replacement, therefore, the VLA would be a worldwide project involving US, European and probably Japanese manufacturers.

This brings its own bureaucratic problems, further complicated by the fact that Boeing will not rush to develop a plane that would compete with the 747, which has a comfortable monopoly at the top of the market.

Orders for jumbo jets have all but dried up, but there is no doubt that they will revive and Boeing has continued to upgrade the product. It has plans for a stretched version, the 747X, which could carry more than 500 passengers and would cost dollars 3bn to dollars 5bn to develop.

Although Boeing is dragging its feet, it cannot afford to ignore the VLA completely and is involved in study groups on the project.

According to Nick Heymann, an analyst with County NatWest in New York, the real reason BA will not have its super-large aircraft before the end of the century is simply that aircraft makers will have too much on their plate.

'The VLA is important, but the industry can't afford it now,' he says. He estimates that Boeing will have to spend between dollars 8bn and dollars 10bn just to upgrade its current range, adding that both aircraft makers and airlines will have to spend heavily on increasing efficiency.

Operators will have to aim for standards set by Southwest Airlines, he says, while manufacturers will have to concentrate on improving quality and cutting waste - in other words, they will have to go down the lean production route already taken by the car industry. Only then, he says, will they be able to concentrate on the super-jumbo that BA is demanding.

(Photograph and graph omitted)