A380 or Sonic Cruiser: Which is the Future?
(Source : Forecast International/DMS ;issued May 2, 2001)

NEWTOWN, Conn.---Boeing's Sonic Cruiser high-speed, subsonic transport represents a very different view of the future direction of the large commercial transport market than does the 555-passenger Airbus A380 ultra-high-capacity aircraft (UHCA). Forecast International/DMS aerospace analysts recently explored the market potential of the two proposed transports.

The A380 program represents the opinion that the market for a UHCA is here or almost here. The Sonic Cruiser proposal represents the opinion that a market for a UHCA is still some way off, and that shorter flight times and increased point-to-point service is what airlines and passengers want. Both programs are very expensive gambles. Neither company has announced any immediate plans to directly challenge the other's new program by marketing a similar aircraft, although Airbus is exploring a concept similar in size and capacity to the Sonic Cruiser.

Boeing plans to focus its new product development efforts on the Sonic Cruiser. Preliminary specifications call for this new, twin-engine aircraft to have a range of at least 9,000 nautical miles at a long-range cruise speed of Mach 0.95. If the program proceeds, Boeing plans to start taking orders for the aircraft in early 2002, with service entry planned for 2006-2008.

Boeing envisions a family of aircraft based on the concept, with different versions capable of carrying 100-300 passengers. The company's early studies have focused on a 225-seat version, although several airlines are asking Boeing to consider a larger, 250-300 seat design.

Boeing argues that the ability to fly at speeds of Mach 0.95 over extended ranges will allow passengers to fly directly to their destinations, avoiding congested hubs and the delays of intermediate stops. The aircraft is also expected to significantly reduce flight times, cutting up to two hours from a transatlantic hop and three from a transpacific flight.

Meanwhile, Boeing said it is slowing development of the stretched 747X and as well as the Longer-Range 767-400ER (also known as the 767-400ERX). With the 747X essentially shelved, Boeing will not (for now) have a direct competitor to the A380. The company has said, however, that it is protecting the ability to introduce a larger 747 should a market for it develop.

Clearly, Boeing is betting that the future will see continuing fragmentation of the long-range market, with airlines requiring smaller aircraft to fly point-to-point between secondary cities.

Airlines' reaction to the Sonic Cruiser has generally been favorable. However, the ultimate success of the aircraft will depend heavily on its acquisition and operational costs.

Another question concerns how much more airline travelers will pay for faster flights. Many passengers, especially business travelers, would likely pay a slight premium to shave a couple of hours off a flight. However, for the Sonic Cruiser to be successful, ticket prices must not be beyond the reach of all but the wealthy.

In the near term, the market for a UHCA may be slow to develop. Sales of the A380 could be slow to materialize after the initial commitments are converted to firm orders. Indeed, the very failure of the 747X to generate interest supports the contention that the UHCA market is, at least for now, fairly limited.

Nevertheless, while the market for a UHCA may not have as much near-term potential as Airbus hopes, it does seem likely to develop sometime after 2010. The time for a UHCA market that can support two competitors may be 15 or even 20 years down the road. But, given present infrastructure limitations, it is only a matter of time before such a market develops. The real question is not if, but when.

Boeing has not yet fully committed to the Sonic Cruiser program. If the company proceeds with the program and delivers an economical aircraft, the Sonic Cruiser would take advantage of continuing route fragmentation. Its very existence could even, with its ability to provide increased point-to-point service, be an impetus to further route fragmentation. It would also provide a clear differentiation between the Boeing and Airbus product lines, particularly if Boeing develops a family of aircraft based on the concept.

Forecast International/DMS Inc., is a leading provider of Market Intelligence and Analyses in the areas of aerospace, defense, power systems and military electronics. Based in Newtown, CT, USA, Forecast International specializes in long-range industry forecasts and innovative marketing presentations, including regular 10-year forecasts.


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