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Skies darkening for Boeing

Andreas Spaeth uhe
June 16, 2019

Amid its MAX crisis, US planemaker Boeing has scaled back its presence at this week's aviation show. This gives a chance for European aerospace giant Airbus' new aircraft to steal a march against their US rival.

Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes at the Boeing Field after their first flights on January 29, 2016 in Seattle, Washington
Image: Getty Images/S. Brashear

The annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Seoul earlier this month was already a harbinger of the changes taking place in the civil aviation industry.

The IATA gathering brings together the world's aircraft makers and their airline customers, and normally provides the stage for the competitive rivalry between Boeing and Airbus, which display their business prowess in front of and behind the scenes.

But while Europe's aerospace giant Airbus has been celebrating record business and marking 50 years since its foundation this year, Boeing is experiencing the worst crisis in its company history. In Seoul, marketing chief Randy Tinseth admitted to DW that the US aircraft maker was "doing really badly" these days. 

Boeing officials, who usually sponsor one of the gala dinners at the IATA meeting, even skipped their traditional welcome address this year, with small buffet table cards reading "Kindly sponsored by Boeing" being the only reminders of the benefactors.

The fleet of 737 MAX planes operated by US carrier Southwest Airlines are waiting out a global grounding at the airport in Victorville, California
All over the world, airlines grounded their Boeing 737 MAX fleets after two fatal crashes. Image: Getty Images/M. Tama

Engulfed by the MAX crisis

At Boeing's corporate headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, the worldwide grounding of the planemaker's 737 MAX fleet has plunged the company's leadership into self-doubt. Two planes of this type crashed in March and October, killing a total of 346 people.

Revelations by The New York Times added to the company's woes, with the US newspaper unveiling the "cozy relationship" between Boeing and US regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the plane's certification process.

Suspicion about Boeing's best-selling aircraft is now rife within the industry, and there remain massive doubts about the modifications the company's engineers have installed. Nevertheless, a top FAA regulator said the 737 MAX should be back in the air by December, while giving no specific date for its return.

"It's not possible to give an exact date as work progresses on safety fixes to the aircraft," Ali Bahrami, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, said in an interview Wednesday at a conference in Cologne, Germany.

Hard choices

Boeing was planning on coming to Paris with its new 777X jetliner — a bigger, more powerful version of its popular long-range jet. However, the ceremonial maiden voyage of the aircraft in March was canceled as news arrived of the deadly crash of the 737 MAX flown by Ethiopian Airlines.

Engine problems have now delayed the 777X, for which German carrier Lufthansa is a launch customer, until June.  Certification could delay the plane even further, as European regulators give it a more a stringent examination amid the 737 MAX disaster.

Tinseth told DW that Boeing's presence at the Le Bourget airfield north of Paris would be rather low-key as a result. At a news conference Monday, executives faced more nagging questions about Boeing's handling of the 737 MAX crisis.

Flieger Boeing 777-9X  777-8X
Boeing's hopes of presenting its 777X planes to the public in Paris have been thwarted by the MAX crisisImage: The Boeing Company

"We want to leave no stone unturned" in the investigations into an antistall system suspected of causing two crashes, said Kevin McAllister, head of commercial airplanes at the US company. "Our priority is doing everything to get this plane safely returned to service," he added. "It's a pivotal moment for all of us."

Home turf advantage

In contrast, Europe's top planemaker Airbus is preparing to roll out a whole fleet of new aircraft on its home territory, aiming to trump its US rival with orders.

The company is courting potential customers with its A220 — previously known as the Bombardier CSeries — which is a family of narrow-body, twin-engine, medium-range jet airliners. It was originally designed and built by the Canadian manufacturer Bombardier Aerospace before the company was partially taken over by Airbus.

Moreover, Airbus will showcase its A330neo — a new version of the wide-body A330 jet — as well as models of its A350-1000 and the A321LR plane. In addition, show flights of the A380 superjumbo are intended to impress the public for a last time, as Airbus stopped the program a few months ago due to a lack of demand for the double-decker aircraft.

An Airbus highlight at the Paris show is also the launch of a new longer-range aircraft, dubbed the A321XLR, which could preempt Boeing's plans for a similar plane. The A321XLR is expected to come into commercial use between 2023 and 2024, which is a full two years before Boeing's planned new mid-market plane (NMA).

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane landing at Los Angeles Airport
A 787 Dreamliner plane flown by Air Tahiti Nui will be the only Boeing aircraft shown in Paris this yearImage: Imago Images/Aviation-Stock

Also on show

Smaller competitors present in Paris include Canada's Bombardier Aerospace, which will showcase its CRJ900 regional jetliner. It might be the last appearance of the downsized Canadian firm, as it has sold its C series to Airbus and its turboprop business to Canada's Viking Air. Japan's Mitsubishi is said to be in talks to buy out Bombardier's only remaining aviation business, regional aircraft.

Mitsubishi will be flying its own regional jet in Paris, the MRJ90 — a plane that made its maiden voyage in 2015 and is expected to be in the market from the middle of next year.

Apart from the industry heavyweights, more than 2,400 aviation companies and suppliers from all over the world will use the one-week event to showcase their products. During the 150 flyovers, visitors will be able to admire the latest aircraft models, as well as vintage planes such as the JU-52, a plane manufactured by the famous German firm Junkers that dates back to the 1930s.Every evening, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.