Boeing shrugs off Airbus's new behemoth

In battle for skies, the US jetmaker thinks smaller planes and direct flights are wave of future, not huge carriers.

Chill winter rains here may feel normal to Seattle residents, but the unveiling of the largest jetliner in history - in France - is another matter.

It's a symbolic shot across the bow of Boeing, the company that for decades has put this region at the forefront of American aeronautics. The rivalry between the assembly lines of Puget Sound and those of Toulouse, France, is a very real matter of pride, prestige, and jobs.

Half a world away from this week's hoopla surrounding Europe's Airbus consortium, employees at Boeing's commercial airplanes unit seemed anything but threatened by what Airbus is calling "the future of flying." Impressed, yes. But fearful or even envious? No. More, "Hmm. Big airplane."

The mood here, in short, is generally one of determination, not despair.

Ronnie Behnke, a machinist at Boeing's Auburn, Wash., plant, has a matter-of-fact take on the intercontinental rivalry: "People say, 'Oh, you must hate Airbus.' I say, 'No, I don't hate them. They make airplanes. We make airplanes.' "

Still, America's aviation leader faces pressure from its archrival. For two straight years, Airbus models have outsold Boeing's passenger aircraft. In seven years the company's employment in this state fell from 103,420 to 53,553. So it is perhaps surprising that fear and loathing were not the general moods of the company or its engineers and machinists.

After all, Airbus's gargantuan A380 will put between 500 and 800 passengers on double decks mounted in its 239-foot fuselage. Virgin Atlantic Airways, which ordered six of the brutes, promises a gym area, casinos, double beds in first class, a beauty parlor and larger wet bars. Fully loaded at 1.2 million pounds, it will have a range of 8,000 nautical miles. Airbus says it will be 15 percent cheaper to operate than Boeing's venerable 747 jumbo jet, which can carry up to 416 passengers some 7,260 nautical miles.

Nevertheless, while everyone here seems respectfully awed by the A380's technological achievement, the US aerospace giant believes the European consortium is making, literally and strategically, a massive mistake. To a degree, Boeing has bet its commercial airplane future on it.

After congratulating Airbus for "an industrial accomplishment of some note," Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher says, "It's a very large airplane aimed at a very small portion of the commercial market."

The A380 aims at big hub airports, he explains. "It's the way people used to travel" - a pattern he sees decreasing in an era of direct flights between more cities. Where Airbus expects to sell 1,250 of these "superjumbo" jets, Boeing sees a market for about 400, and wants no part of it.

Though both Airbus and Boeing employ analysts who model the future, these rivals have come up with vastly different visions of what flying will be like in 20 years.

Airbus, along with A380 customers such as Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, envision a travel future in which giant airliners sardined with 500 or 700 passengers fly between large hub airports - say, London and Chicago or Miami and Bangkok - where hundreds of these travelers will then transfer to other flights delivering them to their disparate destinations. For such a transportation model the A380 is ideal.

Boeing contends that airline passengers increasingly prefer nonstop flights directly to their destinations, avoiding as much as possible connecting flights. For such a model, larger numbers of long-range airliners with smaller capacity and increased fuel efficiency give travelers greater choice and more convenient itineraries.

And so, what might be called Boeing's competitor to the A380 looks nothing like the airborne dreadnought. Boeing believes its 7E7 Dreamliner, which the company announced in April, 2004, is the true future of flying. Dreamliners are projected to carry between 217 and 289 passengers up to 8,500 nautical miles.

It will be made of composite materials, not metal, making for a lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft.

Mr. Behnke, the machinist, says "the A380 just spurs people at Boeing to be more competitive."

Pat Waters retired last year after 38 years at Boeing. The engineer toured the Toulouse facility and came away impressed with its efficiency, but says the main threat to Boeing is not the consortium's technology but its financial support from European governments. Even after big staff cuts, Boeing has trouble competing, he says from his home near Seattle.

"Boeing's strategy is sound," he says. "If you look at the history of aviation, those that take the risk in technology generally come out ahead.... The A380 is just a very big airplane."

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