Boeing's arch rival, Airbus Industrie (Toulouse, France), is taking a "bigger is better" approach. The European consortium recently unveiled plans to build the A380, a super jumbo jet that will hold 555 passengers and will be capable of cruising 8,150 nautical miles. Boeing's largest commercial aircraft, the 747, holds 524 passengers and is capable of cruising 7,325 nautical miles.
In sharp contrast, the Boeing 717 features only 106 seats and is intended for short-haul service on routes that average 300 miles. Nonstop range for the basic version of the 717 is 1,647 miles.
According to Phil Condit, Boeing's chairman and chief executive officer, the 717 strengthens the company's product line with a smaller, lighter model targeted to the emerging regional market. The 717 is positioned in the heart of that category, which is projected to require 3,000 airplanes during the next 20 years.
"The real core market will be the longer range, smaller market and that's where we're putting our energy," says Condit, a former engineer and 36-year Boeing veteran. He believes the traditional "hub and spoke system" of air travel will gradually erode, leading to a greater demand for smaller planes.
More and more passengers want to bypass congested hub airports and fly direct to their destinations. Rising demand for air travel and lifting of flight restrictions in Asia and Europe are also expected to spur demand for more flexible, regional jets such as the 717.
Meanwhile, the Airbus A380 is scheduled to take to the skies in 2005. The double-decked behemoth has been touted as a "flying palace" with amenities such as shops, exercise rooms and sleeping quarters. Some airplanes may even be equipped with flying casinos. Airbus has received orders for more than 60 super jumbos from eight airlines with long-haul routes, including Air France, Qantas and Singapore Airlines.
With the A380 looming on the horizon, Boeing considered building a super-jumbo, such as a double-decked 747, to compete head-to-head with Airbus. Instead of engaging in an aerial dogfight, the company is taking a totally different tack. It recently unveiled plans to build a super-fast commercial aircraft called the Sonic Cruiser or the 20XX. The twin-engined plane will fly at speeds around Mach 0.95--just shy of the speed of sound but about 20 percent faster than today's jets.
The plane features a unique shape that makes it look different from all current commercial passenger jets, including a double delta-shaped wing and a horizontal stabilizer near the nose. Condit says the Sonic Cruiser will seat 175 to 250 passengers and fly at higher altitudes than conventional jets. The faster speed would shave approximately 1 hour off of a 3,000 journey. For instance, it could eliminate up to 3 hours from a flight to Asia.
According to Condit, the ability to fly faster over extended ranges will allow passengers to fly where they want to go, when they want to go. People will fly directly to their destinations, avoiding congested hubs and the hassle or intermediate stops. "This new airplane will change the way the world flies as dramatically as did the introduction of the jet age," predicts Condit.
The Sonic Cruiser is not expected to enter service until the end of this decade. Many design details and manufacturing issues must still be worked out. However, Condit claims the airplane could be built with conventional material and be powered by the same engines now used on Boeing's 777 model.