While doing some research on Boeing and Airbus I came across this Unsolicited Advice column in Forbes from about a year ago. We’ve blogged quite a bit about the supply chain convolutions and political nonsense going on at those companies, but this column directly compares the design intent of each company’s new planes from the customer’s perspective. Not the design of the cabin and amenities, but of air travel logistics. In effect each company has made a huge bet on a different vision of the future.
The Airbus A380 is a huge plane destined for the record books… assuming the company can get its manufacturing act together. There is considerable risk that the company, which is making factory downsizing decisions based on "equality and fairness across national boundaries" instead of skills and knowledge and supply chain efficiency, could simply implode from excessive bureaucratic meddling. But just for grins lets assume it doesn’t. The premise behind the A380 is based on one specific vision of the future of air travel:
The A380 represents a bet-the-house wager on one of the most disliked same-old models of air travel: the hub-and-spoke. The A380 is built around the assumption that airlines will continue to fly smaller planes on shorter routes (spokes) into a few large hubs, then onward to the next hub on giant airplanes.
To help travelers put up with more connections and longer travel, the A380 will offer a host of amenities like lounges and perhaps even a gym. But how many planes will actual receive a nouveau luxury configuration?
Passengers may become disenchanted with the plane if it turns out to be a freighter rather than a luxury liner. When airlines can choose between more seats and a gym, out goes the gym. Sound cynical? Not to those of us who fondly remember the upstairs first-class lounge in the early 747s.
The Boeing 787 is based on a different vision.
Boeing doesn’t take the current hub-and-spoke model as a given. Marty Bentrott, vice president of sales, marketing and in-service support for the 787, says that since 1990, the number of city pairs more than 3,000 nautical miles apart served by the world’s airlines have doubled, the number of frequencies offered by the airlines have doubled, and the number of available seat-kilometers (seating capacity times miles flown) have doubled. None of these trends show any signs of abating; meanwhile, the average airplane size has actually declined slightly. Clearly, customers prefer more point-to-point flights, flown more frequently, on smaller airplanes.
This is analogous to lean manufacturing’s batch versus one piece flow. The A380 transports large number of passengers… customers… at a time. Any delay or problem with the A380 delivering the large batch of passengers can create a nightmare that ripples throughout the hub and spoke system. Additional support logistics… feeder planes at the front and back ends… are required for the system to work. Origin to destination cycle time is longer, and value to the customer is less. The 787, along with older small jets, transports exactly what is required directly from origin to destination.
Why the different visions? Apparently Airbus worked to satisfy their customer – the airlines – while Boeing put considerable effort into understanding the desires of the final customer – the passengers.
According to Boeing, the 787 is the result of over a decade of focus groups and scientific studies to gain a better understanding of passenger comfort and how the design of airplane interiors can make flying a more pleasant experience. If Airbus made comparable efforts, we are hard-pressed to find the evidence. Did people really tell Airbus that they are perfectly happy to stand in more lines in exchange for a cocktail lounge? Airbus could not be reached for comment.
Both airlines are hedging their bets a bit. Boeing has a more efficient version of the 747 in the works that can carry even more passengers. Airbus has the A350, although that continues to be delayed as a result of the financial drain created by the A380 program. But with the final customer, the passenger, ultimately determining which vision of the future offers them the most value, you have to wonder about Airbus’ big bet on the A380.