Tuesday, January 26, 2016

ANALYSIS: A320neo vs. 737 MAX: Airbus is Leading (Slightly) – Part I

By: Vinay Bhaskara / Published: January 26, 2016

The first Airbus A320neo entered service with Lufthansa yesterday, easing the global aviation industry into an era that we've dubbed the "age of incrementalism." The initial delivery of Airbus' re-engined A320 was originally planned for late 2015, but ended up getting pushed back into the first month of 2016 by certification issues surrounding the Pratt & Whitney geared turbo fan (GTF) engine. Thanks to the delay, Airbus' lead over rival Boeing has shrunk to one calendar year, with Boeing's re-engined 737 MAX set to fly for the first time this Friday, and expected to enter into service (EIS) with Southwest Airlines in the third quarter of 2017.

A320neo vs. 737 MAX – how did we get here?

In today's aerospace market, the 737 MAX versus the A320neo is a defining contest. The MAX and the neo are the best-selling products for the two members of the large commercial aircraft duopoly. Accordingly, how this battle plays out will have critical implications for the balance of power between the two most important aerospace players in global aviation.

The history of how the neo and MAX came to be is a fascinating one. For much of modern aviation history, the concept of re-engining an existing airframe with minimal airframe changes was not a popular one. The closest a major manufacturer had previously come to re-engining an airframe was McDonnell-Douglas with the MD-11. But in addition to refreshed engines, the MD-11 also featured several aerodynamic improvements. The Boeing 717 was also born out of a similar process from the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 family (originally planned as the MD-95), but neither of these aircraft was particularly successful.

So by the late 2000s when Airbus was considering launching the neo, there weren't a ton of affirmative data points that pointed toward Airbus finding success with a re-engined aircraft. After getting lapped by the launch of the A320 ceo in 1989, Boeing fired back in 1997 with the 737NG and despite Airbus already having sold close to 2,000 A320s before the 737NG had its EIS, Boeing rapidly closed the gap. From a gap of 2,000 aircraft in 1998, today the 737NG has won 7,033 lifetime orders against 7,940 orders for the A320 ceo, outselling the A320 since its launch. By the late 2000s, Boeing's product had in many ways surpassed the A320.

The 737-700 and A319 were on the tail end of their relevance (the shorter 737-600 and A318 were never relevant). The 737-800 had outsold the A320 ceo outright despite the latter having a seven-year head start in deliveries, and the introduction of blended winglets after a series of performance improvement packages (PiPs) had consolidated a real advantage for the 737-800 in terms of CASM. The A321 was still more popular than the 737-900ER, but the 737-900ER was winning sales and a few key beachheads (such as post-merger United Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Lion Air in Indonesia).

DSC_0162Airbus' response was to try and improve the A320, through a program called the A320 Enhanced in 2006 which featured weight savings, a new cabin design, and curved winglets (sharklets). As Airbus progressed with the A320 enhanced, it soon realized that engine technology had progressed to the point that it could deliver the 15-20% operating cost reduction over the present generation of aircraft that had previously been the purview of clean sheet airplanes. So Airbus launched the A320neo in December of 2010.

Simultaneously since 2006, Boeing had been studying various replacement options for the 737, including a clean-sheet design dubbed the Boeing Y1 (following in the footsteps of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner which had a development code name of Y2). Initially Boeing's preference was to launch this new small airplane (NSA) soon after the 787's EIS and begin development in the early 2010s. But after the 787 program was subsumed by a variety of issues (including technical challenges that affected elements of the airplane that would be ported over to the NSA), Boeing deferred any decision on the 737 MAX to 2011.

By 2010, it was clear that Boeing was leaning towards launching the NSA as it had largely gotten the 787 under control. Even after Airbus launched the A320neo with 30 firm orders from Virgin America in December 2010, Boeing didn't blink. While the A320neo was certain to win customers amongst existing A320 operators, Boeing reasoned that its own loyal customer base would wait a few years for the NSA, which would promise even better operating costs and tangible aerodynamic improvements. Lessor International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC), SAS, TransAsia, LAN Airlines, IndiGo, GoAir, and AirAsia all added to the A320neo's swelling order book in the early part of 2011 (bringing the backlog to 608. But an increasingly nervous Boeing held firm on its decision to focus on the NSA.

Then American Airlines ordered the A321neo, along with a slew of other Airbus narrowbodies (including A319 ceos as an MD-80 replacement and A321s as a 757-200 and 767-200ER replacement), abandoning its long-standing status as an exclusive Boeing customer. The result of a long courtship by Airbus under the program moniker "Apollo 11," news of Airbus' order reached Boeing in early July of 2011, and left Boeing scrambling to find an answer. With a key Boeing customer essentially in danger of cutting over entirely to become an Airbus customer, Boeing scrambled to save face, eventually settling on a plan to re-engine the 737NG.

Photo Credits: Boeing

The newly minted 737RE (re-engine) was hastily pitched to American along with a dirt cheap offer for current generation 737-800s to help Boeing achieve relative parity. Even with a late close by Boeing, it had still been lapped by Airbus, who won 260 orders (130 ceos and 130 neos) to Boeing's 200. Boeing moved quickly to launch the 737 MAX, with its board formally approving the program's launch in August 2011.

Comparing the products – changes from the previous generation

Both families are composed of three variants apiece, with each dropping the smallest sized aircraft from the prior generation (the A318 and 737-600). The A320neo family features 95% commonality with the A320ceo, with the key differences emanating from the A320 Enhanced and thus being featured on late-build A320ceos. There are two engine choices for the A320neo, CFM International's LEAP-1A and the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G GTF. The PW1100G is one of a family of GTF engines prepared by Pratt that will power most new generation aircraft including the A320neo, the Bombardier CSeries, the Embraer E-Jets E2, the Russian-built Irkut MC-21, and the Mitsubishi MRJ-90.

The LEAP family of engines will also be sole supplier for the Boeing 737 MAX, which will feature the slightly smaller LEAP-1B. As an older, and thus less optimized airframe, Boeing had to invest more in aerodynamic improvements in order to squeeze additional fuel efficiency out of the 737 MAX, including wing integration of the LEAP engine's nacelle and a new Advanced Technology Winglet featuring a split tip, which combined will deliver an additional 2% improvement in fuel economy beyond improvements from engines. Boeing also had to lengthen the landing gear of the 737 MAX by 6-8 inches to accommodate the increased, 69.4 inch fan diameter of the LEAP-1B over the 61.8 inch diameter of the CFM56-7B engine on the 737NG.

737NG vs. A320ceo orders

The 737 NG versus the A320ceo is an important lead in to the contest between neo and MAX because of the 90%+ commonality between the current generation products and the re-engined ones. Thus unlike previous replacement contests, airlines had a stronger financial incentive to stay with the same original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for their next generation fleet.

As previously mentioned, the 737NG has steadily narrowed the gap with the A320ceo since EIS, but still trails overall thanks to the nearly eight year head start enjoyed by the Airbus family. The following table presents the orders, deliveries, and backlogs for each member of both families as well as the head-to-head comparison for each of the members of the family. Figures for both families include business jets, and the 737-800's include ~80 orders worth of P-8 Poseidon military aircraft.

Sources: Boeing and Airbus

Sources: Boeing and Airbus

As indicated in the table, the A320ceo family has the edge overall but the 737-800 has actually outsold the A320ceo. This makes sense given that the 737-800 is far and away the best-performing member of the family, offering 12 extra seats and a superior cost per available seat mile (CASM) versus the A320. The A321 holds similar advantages versus the 737-900ER, and that is reflected in its dominance over the Boeing competitor.

737 MAX vs. A320neo orders

Similar trends have carried over into the contest between the MAX and neo, where Airbus once again operated with a head start of nearly one year. While the 737 MAX "technically" won its first order from American in July of 2011, the first firm order for the aircraft was placed on December 13, 2011 by Southwest Airlines for 30 737 MAX 7s and 170 737 MAX 8s. In total, the A320neo has won 4,471 orders versus 3,072 for the 737 MAX. Even if you isolate to the period after the 737 MAX won its first order, the A320neo has still outsold its Boeing counterpart, 3,355 to 3,072.

The following table provides the same variant data and overall comparisons for the A320neo and 737 MAX that the prior one presented for 737NG vs. A320ceo.

Source: pdxlight. Airbus, Boeing

Source: pdxlight, Airbus, Boeing

 

 

Breaking out the family orders by variants provides a strong indication to the relative strengths and weaknesses of each product. These initial takeaways will be discussed in part two of this analysis, starting with the fact that the 737 MAX 7 and A319neo basically don't matter. These aircraft are the 737-600 and A318 analogs to the previous generation, and the market has clearly settled on larger mainline narrowbodies as a default. A second takeaway is that despite the hype, the 737 MAX 8 and A320neo sized aircraft continue to be the "heart of the market." Combined the two aircraft have five times as many orders as the A321neo and 737 MAX 9.

It is also clear that the A321neo is the biggest relative advantage in Airbus' portfolio – having won 404% more orders than the 737 MAX 9, which speaks to the relative capabilities and operating economics of those two aircraft. Even though the sales gap between the A320neo and 737 MAX 8 is sizable, in percentage terms the A320neo's lead is only 19% and the 737 MAX 8 has actually outsold the A320neo since the date of its formal launch.

From the chart, it would appear that Airbus has built a tangible advantage over Boeing in the narrowbody space. But to add more context to that assessment, the following graph illustrates the year by year orders won for each aircraft family.

Source: pdxlight. Airbus, Boeing

Source: pdxlight, Airbus, Boeing

After viewing the chart, it should become clear that the standard story of Airbus building a commanding 60-40 market share in the space is not necessarily presenting the complete picture. Looking at the data, it's clear that Airbus got a huge head start in 2011, which was then followed by two years of the MAX dominating the neo and a third year where the two aircraft were relatively even in orders. So when considering what 2016's order battle will look like, it is certainly possible that Airbus' will maintain the 60-40 advantage (say winning 600 orders to Boeing's 400).

But it is also possible that the two aircraft will win a similar number of orders. Each carrier winning 600 orders would reduce Airbus' lead to 57.5-42.5 and 1,000 orders would reduce it to 56.5-46.5. And in two of the last four years (i.e. 50% of the time), the MAX has doubled up the neo in orders – similar performance across 1,500 combined orders (1,000 to Boeing and 500 to Airbus) would reduce Airbus' edge to 54.5-45.5.

Each one of these scenarios has a nontrivial chance of occurring in 2016, and Part II of this analysis, due to be out tomorrow, will explore those percentages and the drivers behind their relative likelihood. Also, don't miss this week our 737 Timeline story, ahead of the Boeing 737 MAX scheduled to be this Friday.


VinayVinay Bhaskara covers finance, operations and regulatory matters surrounding the U.S. and international airline industry. Bhaskara has been quoted in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and South China Morning Post, The LA Times, and his work has appeared in Forbes, Business Insider and Skift. You can contact him at vinay.bhaskara@airwaysnews.com.


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