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Originally published July 7, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Page modified July 10, 2012 at 4:40 PM

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Corrected version

Boeing hopes for a really big show at Farnborough

When the Farnborough Air Show opens south of London on Monday, even Airbus executives expect Boeing to steal the limelight with hundreds of orders for its forthcoming 737 MAX.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

What to watch for at the Farnborough Air Show 2012

Year of the MAX: Boeing expects hundreds of orders for its forthcoming single-aisle 737 MAX. Airbus will announce relatively few orders for the rival A320neo.

New bosses: Ray Conner will make his first appearances as the new Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief: a Sunday afternoon round-table with journalists and a Monday news conference. New Airbus Chief Executive Fabrice Bregier on Thursday will lead his company's final news conference at the show.

Orders for big jets: Boeing has raised expectations for significant 747-8 orders. One key deal: Turkish Airlines may buy 15 jumbo jets, either the Airbus A380 or the Boeing 747-8.

Flying display: Boeing will break with its normal practice and fly a Qatar Airways 787 Dreamliner in the daily aerial displays Monday through Wednesday. Airbus will fly the A380 superjumbo jet every day.

Southern Celebration: Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana will host a joint reception on the eve of the show, toasting Airbus for its newly announced plan to build jets in Mobile, Ala.

Dominic Gates

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After a string of international air shows at which Airbus grabbed center stage, it's finally Boeing's turn.

When the Farnborough Air Show opens south of London on Monday, even Airbus executives expect Boeing to steal the limelight with hundreds of orders for its forthcoming 737 MAX.

A year ago at the Paris Air Show, which alternates annually with Farnborough as the aviation industry's foremost event, Airbus blew past all expectations when it announced sales deals for nearly 700 single-aisle A320neos.

Airbus now has more than 1,300 firm orders for the neo, versus just 474 for the rival 737 MAX — an airplane Boeing was forced to launch precipitously just a month after Paris to salvage a half share of a big order from American Airlines.

But with the neo order book so full, the chief executive of Airbus Americas, Barry Eccleston, concedes Airbus will have a quiet Farnborough.

"Last year was so spectacular, you can't keep doing that," said Eccleston. "It's clearly going to be Boeing's year of the MAX."

The year certainly started well for the MAX, with two mega-orders early on from Norwegian and Lion Air of Indonesia totaling 301 sales.

Beverly Wyse, vice president of the 737 program, said last month she expects the 10,000th order for all 737 models to be booked soon. She needs just 212 orders at Farnborough to make that happen in the week ahead.

United may announce a big MAX order there. Air Lease Corp., the jet-leasing company run by aviation guru Steven Udvar-Hazy, is also expected to order the jet.

Yet Joe Ozimek, vice president of marketing for the 737 MAX, emphasized that, starting from behind, Boeing is "trying to catch up."

"The other guy had a year of waltzing around the world telling everybody what he had, with essentially zero competition from us," said Ozimek, who spoke during a breather at his office after five months spent crisscrossing the globe wooing airline customers.

While offering the standard Boeing caution that the company doesn't save up orders to be announced at air shows, he said he's confident that at the end of the year Boeing will have the 1,000 MAX orders it has projected.

In the final analysis, it will maintain parity with Airbus in the single-aisle jet market, he said.

Highlight of year

Farnborough is the biggest commercial-aviation event of the year.

A big delegation from Alabama will be there to celebrate last Monday's news that Airbus will open an A320 plant in Mobile.

Gov. Chris Gregoire will lead a 40-person Washington delegation of suppliers as well as trade and development officials, advertising the business opportunities for aerospace suppliers in this state as Boeing production begins to soar.

Farnborough is also an arms bazaar selling advanced military hardware, though this year the defense sector is seriously in retreat, worried about looming U.S. budget cuts.

Reversing a 28-year practice of displaying its airliners only on the ground at air shows, Boeing will fly its 787 Dreamliner. The plane will be going up in the afternoon aerial display at the behest of showoff customer Qatar Airways.

Boeing's defense unit will fly the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and the big C-17 military transport.

Airbus will show off, as always, with slow fly-bys of its massive double-decker A380 airliner. It will also fly its A400M turboprop military transport.

Still, big widebody jets aren't expected to generate a lot of news at Farnborough.

It's too soon to know if the Dreamliner will perform reliably in airline service, and other twin-aisle programs — the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777X — are in mid-development or on the drawing board.

But there is one potential widebody news item of exceptional importance. Turkish Airways is expected to finalize a big order for 15 jumbo jets, choosing between the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747-8.

The A380 has had a very bad year, with the discovery of cracks in the wing ribs of airplanes in service. Airbus already has spent $460 million on fixes, with many more jets still to be retrofitted.

And Boeing, with only 27 orders for the passenger airline model of its 747-8, is desperate to get some sales momentum for its jet.

The Turkish deal will be a defining order, sealing the show as a success for one of those two jets.

Small-jets battle

Otherwise, the story of Farnborough should be round two of the single-aisle battle between the MAX and the neo. It's a very close contest, hard fought for every airline deal.

The 737 models flying today are acknowledged even by Airbus operators to be more fuel efficient than today's A320s. That's an important factor, but not the only one, in airlines' decision.

In a May interview, Dave Barger, chief executive of JetBlue, the world's largest operator of A320s, conceded his planes are "slightly disadvantaged" in fuel efficiency and range compared with the 737-800.

Nevertheless, Barger said it was an "easy decision" last year to stick with the A320 and order 40 neos.

Maintaining commonality with his fleet was a big factor. Barger also likes the A320's extra fuselage width, giving passengers "an (extra) inch in every seat and an inch in the aisle."

And Airbus claims that the bigger engines on the neo will erase the efficiency gap with the 737.

On the other hand, Boeing customer Southwest Airlines stuck with the 737 and became the launch customer for the MAX with an order for 150, despite a "very aggressive" Airbus offer to switch to the neo.

Brian Hirshman, who was deeply involved in that decision as Southwest's senior vice president of technical operations, acknowledged "it's yet to be seen" how the fuel-efficiency gap narrows between the neo and the MAX.

For Southwest, maintaining fleet commonality was again crucial. But so was keeping faith in Boeing to match Airbus' efficiency improvements stride for stride.

"The MAX is a significantly lighter airplane. A heavier airplane is going to burn more fuel," said Hirshman. "We'll maintain our competitive advantage."

Another crucial factor in sales decisions is availability. If an airline needs a more efficient fleet now, how fast a manufacturer can deliver may be decisive.

American Airlines, for instance, has an old, gas-guzzling fleet and needs to get competitive fast. Neither Airbus nor Boeing could fill all its needs quickly enough, so the airline ordered both the MAX and the neo.

For this reason, the Airbus decision to build a plant in Mobile will be a hot topic in London, one that could affect the battle between the MAX and neo.

Eccleston said Airbus is finding it a challenge to reach a production rate of 42 A320s a month by its October target, because companies in its supply chain are reluctant to invest for the near term. With the global economy uncertain, they worry Airbus might pull back production rates later.

So Airbus has shelved for now its plan to ramp up further, to 44 a month.

But Eccleston said he expects a surge in demand after neo deliveries start in 2016, and the Alabama facility will help step up the rate then.

"Based on demand for the neo so far, we can see that we can support a rate higher than 42 a month, especially if we are able to penetrate the U.S. market more," he said.

Boeing's Ozimek argues that the similar production-rate plans at the two giant manufacturers will in the end ensure they split the single-aisle jet market pretty evenly.

Demand exceeds supply

Since the demand far outstrips the supply, he said, Boeing will sell every 737 it can make.

Airbus and Boeing "both make about the same number of airplanes a year and we sell all of them," said Ozimek. "That results in a 50 percent share."

To maintain that share, Boeing must roll out as many 737s from Renton as Airbus can roll out A320s from its assembly plants in Toulouse, France; Hamburg, Germany; Tianjin, China; and, by 2016, Mobile, Ala.

That's why Boeing is already reconfiguring the Renton plant for an extraordinary ramp-up of production. It plans to bump up from the current 35 jets a month in Renton to 42 and maybe much higher. (Ozimek said 60 could be needed.)

At Farnborough, Gregoire will pitch that ramp-up as an opportunity to aerospace companies. She will also visit the Bombardier plant in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the wings of the forthcoming CSeries jet are built, and the Airbus wing factory in Broughton, Wales.

Gregoire wants to get new work for suppliers already in the state, and to attract others to put new facilities here.

After her visit to Paris last year, Dassault Systèmes, a French company that makes software for engineering drawings, opened a Seattle office.

"The message is: We're growing dramatically in terms of production. Are you ready to expand?" Gregoire said in an interview.

Farnborough is a showcase not only for Airbus and Boeing, but also for a list of aspiring entrants to the commercial-jet market.

Bombardier of Canada will try again to get some takers for its CSeries jet, which is scheduled to fly by year-end; COMAC of China will talk about its plans for the C919 jet family; Irkut of Russia will show a mock-up of its MS-21 jet family.

But the CSeries has failed to gain momentum so far, at least in part because of the success of Airbus and Boeing in flooding the market with their neo and MAX jets.

And though the more secretive Russian and Chinese jet projects could perhaps offer surprises at Farnborough, industry analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group dismisses those as "government-run hobby shops," not real businesses.

Despite the global economic malaise, the aviation business remains healthy. And that means Airbus sales chief John Leahy — who revels in air-show theatrics — may well have some orders up his sleeve for Farnborough, despite having lowered expectations in advance.

"He's been through grimmer times, and he's still managed to swagger," said Aboulafia.

Still, aside from that Turkish Airlines jumbo jet order, the big news this coming week should be mostly about the MAX.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published July 7, 2012, was corrected July 8. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect number of orders for the 737 MAX.

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