Airbus has high hopes for 550-passenger A3XX

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Katie Fairbank / The Dallas Morning News

FARNBOROUGH, England – Imagine a world of jumbo jets large enough to carry 550 people and still have room for casinos, shops and suites.

Then conjure up the image of those 550 people arriving at the airport parking lot, the ticket counter and the gate at roughly the same time, all ready for the same long-haul flight.

"It's mind-boggling," said Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University.

The European consortium Airbus believes the idea will get off the ground.

The jet maker used this week's Farnborough International 2000 air show to show off its design for what will be the world's largest passenger plane: the double-deck A3XX. And it was bragging to competitors such as Boeing that it already had orders for 22 of the mammoth planes, with delivery of the first jet expected in 2004.

It's been a good week at the Farnborough show, which ends Sunday, for commercial aircraft giants Airbus – the British-French-German-Spanish company – and Seattle-based Boeing. Charter airlines and commercial carriers were out in force at Farnborough, the world's largest air show, and they were in a spending mood.

Not counting orders for the A3XX, which hasn't even begun production, Airbus sold 209 jets by Friday worth about $18.75 billion. Boeing was close behind, registering 131 orders worth about $14.7 billion.

Regional-jet sales hot

But it was also a good week for the makers of hot-selling regional jets that usually seat fewer than 100 passengers. Airlines use the jets to serve smaller cities that need connections with the regional hubs such as Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The regional jet companies sold about 260 planes worth $6 billion at Farnborough, led by the Brazilian firm Embraer and Montreal-based Bombardier Aerospace.

Continental Express, a subsidiary of Houston-based Continental Airlines, was one of the carriers shopping for the little jets. It placed 75 firm orders for Embraer's ERJ145.

Bombardier, which is building a business-jet service center at Dallas Love Field, reported this week that the company has sold 273 regional aircraft worth $6 billion this year. Twenty-five of them are going to American Airlines of Fort Worth.

Bombardier, which already makes jets that seat as few as 40 passengers and as many as 70, announced at Farnborough that it would add a new 90-seat aircraft to help meet demand.

"Bombardier will be the only company to offer the whole family of regional jets of between 40 and 90 seats," said Robert Brown, the company's president and chief executive officer.

Mr. Brown estimated the regional-jet business will expand worldwide, and he said he expects to sell 800 jets between now and 2020.

"Five years ago, you only had three airlines flying regional jets," said Kenneth Swartz, Bombardier's marketing director for regional aircraft. "The product was the exception rather than the rule. Since then, we've seen more than 15 airlines recognize regional jets and offer routes that were never flown before."

The regional jets don't usually replace the Boeing behemoths, he said, but they allow airlines to add destinations that don't have enough travelers to fill a 737 on a regular basis.

"Virtually every RJ [regional jet] is generally going to serve a new route," said Mr. Swartz. "A lot of the airlines are focusing on network growth."

Some analysts skeptical

With the regional jet boom, many airline analysts are skeptical about the addition of bigger jets such as the Airbus A3XX, which won't fit at just any airport.

"I'm not sure where in the world we're going to fly 550 people," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of travel Web site "I'm not sure where that plane is going to have a value, unless it's a very demanding route."

Airbus says the A3XX is designed for flights between hubs such as Los Angeles, Tokyo, London and Dallas-Fort Worth.

The company said it's building the plane with expectations that air traffic will triple over the next 20 years, forcing airlines to add about 1,500 super-jumbo jets.

Boeing's analysts have reached a different conclusion. They predict that passengers will prefer to fly regional jets directly to and from smaller cities, skipping hubs.

And Boeing doesn't see passengers flocking to huge new jets, even when a flying cruise ship like the A3XX offers suites and shops.

Mr. Parsons also doubts that many frequent fliers will ever get the opportunity to sample the A3XX luxuries.

"It sure won't work in the U.S.," he said, "because when you get on an airplane, they say, 'Fasten your seatbelt and don't get out of it.'"