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Boeing 7E7 (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

This month the Boeing Company fired a high tech bullet at its main competitor, Airbus, by announcing the first order for its newest plane: The 7E7 Dreamliner.

A new airliner seems an exciting thing, yet Boeing and Airbus fight to create a plane that meets the needs of accountants: They aim for a jet with low operating costs because any savings helps in this era of razor-thin profit margins for airlines.

So, that "E" in 7E7 stands for efficiency. Boeing claims their new plane will be more fuel efficient by 15 to 20 percent over today's jets - that translates into a 10% savings in fuel cost. A big deal since a major airline spends about three billion a year on fuel. What kind of snazzy engineering creates a more fuel efficient plane? The main source of savings comes from making the airliner lighter. With the 7E7 the metallic gleam of an aluminum aircraft wing will be no more: Its wing will be made of carbon-fibers, a type of graphite, like the lead in a pencil. Engineers can make a wing as strong and rigid as aluminum, but some fifty percent lighter.

The key, though, to a competitive airliner lies not only in using the latest technology, but also in keeping it away from competitors! Airbus would love to retrofit their older planes with the latest high tech wonder from Boeing's newest jet, so Boeing does their best to keep Airbus at bay.

For example, when engineers designed the triple seven - the last new plane developed by Boeing - they set the wings high above the ground. This allowed the innovative engines developed for the triple seven to just fit, but made them too large to use under the wing of any Airbus jet. It looks like the same will happen with the 7E7 engines: They'll operate in a way that requires extensive retrofitting on any Airbus. In spite of all this technological posturing, the 7E7 is really a multi-billion dollar gamble - a dispute, if you will, between Boeing and Airbus about exactly how air travel will evolve. You see, both companies have new planes on the horizon. Airbus is pushing its A380, which seats 555 people, making it by far the largest plane ever, outstripping Boeing's 747 by about 150 passengers. With the 7E7 Boeing moves in the opposite direction: It'll seat only two to three hundred. Boeing bets that air routes will fragment with more point-to-point flights, whereas Airbus thinks the key is a hub where thousands of passengers gather and then are rerouted.

Who's right? Well, the giant Airbus appears in 2006 and the nimble 7E7 in 2008, so we'll know by 2012 who has placed the right four point five billion dollar bet.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises