European airline manufacturer Airbus Industrie has been negotiating with U.S., European and Asian companies to join in the A3XX project for a 555-seater aircraft, a company spokesman here said.
He would not, however, confirm reports that Lockheed Martin was involved, although he did mention the Italian firm Alenia, the Dutch firm Fokker, and the Belgian firm Belairbus as probable partners in the very large carrier project.An alliance between Airbus and Lockheed would add another twist to the arch rivalry between Boeing and Airbus. Late last year, Boeing - the largest single U.S. exporter - announced it would acquire McDonnell Douglas to give it further strength in the military aircraft business.
Airbus insists there is demand for some 1,400 orders over 20 years of a new commercial jumbo aircraft with more than 400 seats. The European maker adds that it hopes to get 50 percent of those orders.
The A3XX, as the model is known, has a scheduled launch of December 1998, a catalog price of $198 million, a range of about 7,500 nautical miles and development costs of about $8 billion. The company is working with about 20 airlines to better define the model's features. The crunch will come in December of next year, when airlines start placing orders.
A new 20-year Airbus forecast of planes larger than 70 seats operated by 246 of the world's largest airlines finds that passenger traffic will grow by 5.9 percent a year during the next 10 years (to 2006), and by 4.6 percent annually thereafter.
In the more mature North American market, traffic is expected to grow by just 1.9 percent, while in the Asia-Pacific it would increase by over 7 percent - with growth in China at 10 percent a year.
During that period, the North American share of the world fleet is expected to fall to 28 percent from 39 percent, in seat terms, while Asia's share will rise to 32 percent from 25 percent and Europeans to 29 percent from 25 percent.
Already, nine of the top 10 city pair routes are in the Asia- Pacific region.
To cope with this rise in traffic, the active fleet of the world's 246 major airlines is expected to grow to 17,144 aircraft from 9,392 today.
One implication for the world's airport and traffic control system is an expected 84 percent growth in flights. Airbus reasons that larger aircraft will become essential to maximize use of the available infrastructure.
All told, as many as 13,500 new aircraft could be ordered over the next 20 years, although experience suggested that up to 15 percent of the demand would be met with second-hand aircraft.
Boeing has maintained that there is no market for a very large aircraft, but Airbus managing director Jean Pierson dismisses this argument as part of Boeing's competitive tactics. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he said it was Boeing's aim to maintain its monopoly for large airliners without spending too much. Thus, a proposed collaboration between Boeing and Europeans makers for very large aircraft was never viable in Boeing's mind, but the idea helped keep the Europeans from working on their own version.
Boeing then offered a stretched version of the 747, but this was turned down by airlines that wanted a modern aircraft. Because building a new aircraft would have increased Boeing's development costs to $7 billion from $3 billion, the company decided to argue that the market wasn't viable, Mr. Pierson was quoted as saying.