Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Airbus and Boeing Face a Dark and Painful Future

by Kristen Lagadec

Global Public Media (July 01 2008)

When you google 'Airbus Boeing Peak Oil', the top result is this article that I wrote in the summer of 2006. Being a Cassandra proved right gives one all sorts of uneasy feelings, but I will carry on in that direction and offer a revised version of my prophecy, adorned with new details.

In a nutshell: People are talking a lot about the difficulties for airlines with $150-a-barrel oil. But we also have to understand that it is going to be much worse for aircraft manufacturers. They probably know it; but they cannot believe what they know, and they cannot say it either. This is not just another crisis for air transportation and aerospace construction: this is the last crisis until the end of the fossil fuel era.

Hard times for airlines

First an important premise: there are no serious alternatives to jet fuel for airliners. And even if there were, they could never be cheap in a world of expensive energy. The problem is not that oil is scarce: the production has never been this high - that's why we call it Peak Oil. The problem is that energy supply is not meeting global demand: until demand abates, any type of energy will end up costing the same, be it classical kerosene, gas-to-liquid synthetic jet fuel, or biodiesel. Regardless of the environmental footprint. Just know that if it was technologically feasible, filling an A380 tank with biofuel would use up 150 hectares of yearly yield, considering an optimistic figure of 2000 litres per hectare for Jatropha biodiesel. You'd need 150x2x365x150 = 16 million hectares - the arable land in France - to power the currently ordered A380 fleet.

Meanwhile the fuel efficiency improvements do not come anywhere close to compensating the price surge. Boeing claim that their new 787 will burn twenty percent less fuel than current jets of the same category (namely the 767 or A330). Twenty percent is how much oil prices rose between the beginning of April and mid-May 2008: thirty years of technological improvement in aircraft and engine design will offset six weeks of price increase, and no technological Deus ex Machina will change that deal.

The obvious consequence is that cheap flights are gone for good. We are currently witnessing a fast concentration of the market, because the fierce competition prevents airlines from transferring the whole fuel bill to their passengers. As the weaker players exit the arena, ticket prices will rise until the few remaining airlines can break even financially. We will see a trend of de-democratization of air travel, and people will gradually change their travel habits, starting with the poorer and newer travelers.

There is a second key element that will drive air traffic down: as planemakers' market forecasts point out, air traffic growth is consistently correlated to world GDP growth. No need to be a psychic to imagine that GDP growth will seriously suffer from expensive energy. When people's purchasing power shrinks because of the energy bill, they will think twice before flying. Note that a major economic downturn could very well stop the rise in oil prices or even reduce them for a while. But it will not help air traffic - unemployed people do not fly all that much.

Meanwhile, environmental awareness is growing worldwide: the global warming theme is increasingly popular with the sort of middle class travelers who used to fill economy seats for exotic vacations. There will be less scuba-diving in the Maldives; less horseback-trekking in Mongolia; less leopard-spotting in Tanzania. Flying is losing political correctness points by the day. This is even beginning to reach the corporate world, although sometimes only for mere greenwashing concerns: more firms are asking their employees to fly less, to favor teleconferencing or to merge meetings. Business travel, the spine of airline profitability, is probably weaker than most hope.

I also see a final, more tricky contributor to airline misfortunes: many airlines have based their financial model upon the resell value of their aircraft. Planes are a huge investment, with a long lifetime - a bit like homes. Maybe you see what I am hinting at. Just as the housing crisis brought many people to bankruptcy, many airlines will lose their financial footing when the industry's obvious overcapacity and gloomy outlook pulls the market value of second-hand aircraft down. All this will contribute to reduce air traffic over the next decades, to the levels of the 1990s, then the 1980s, then the 1970s ...

Harder still for aircraft manufacturers

The average natural decay of a fleet because of ageing is around six percent a year. When yearly traffic is constant from one year to the next, six planes for every 100 go into retirement, and are replaced by newer planes. This means that if airlines cut the world's capacity by a mere six percent each year, old retiring planes will not need to be replaced, and no new aircraft will be sold at all. A six percent capacity reduction is equivalent to just changing the Tuesday flight of the daily San Francisco to Tokyo service from a 747-400 to a 777-300ER. A reduction the economic press or the general public would hardly notice can make Airbus and Boeing assembly lines grind to a halt. US carriers will reduce capacity by ten percent to fifteen percent this third quarter of 2008 alone.

All told, the industry will cut capacity by nine percent in 2008, according to James Higgins, analyst for Soleil-Solebury Research. (quote from

In short: airlines make money in proportion to air traffic; aircraft manufacturers make money in proportion to air traffic growth. In a world with negative air traffic growth, the former float, the latter drown. Therefore, although we will probably not see the end of air traffic any time soon, this extremely nasty leverage effect will make aircraft manufacturers suffer considerably.

One might argue that in a world of expensive oil, airlines should scrap all old, gas-guzzling planes and buy new, soberer ones instead. That would be easy if they were making a lot of profit or could promise a bright future. But when the industry is consistently in the red zone, and getting redder, bankers do not follow. Few airlines have sufficient cash to sign billion-dollar contracts without external investment. Therefore airlines will be like people in poor countries: they will be running old vehicles which use up tons of gas because they cannot afford the newer models which make twice the miles per gallon.

Admittedly, a handful of airlines will be a position to buy the new planes. When all the world's money ends up in oil exporters' hands, they have to buy things from us to avoid drowning under the heap of green bills. Aircraft are a great choice, as they are both hard-currency-intensive and fossil-fuel intensive, which oil producers have a lot of, as per design. Consequently, aircraft sales may in fact undergo an increase because of high oil prices. This I call the "Aboulafia effect". I conjecture that such an increase is inherently short-lived. Middle-East carriers will probably become prominent players, and gradually snatch the bulk of the market from the traditional airlines. But air traffic will shrink nonetheless, and all they will need to do is buy back the recent new planes from their victims, scrap the old ones, and make the most of a declining market - something they are becoming good at.

As if matters could be any worse, there will finally be a mean backlash effect: thanks to cheap liquidity seeking asylum, the years 2003 to 2007 were absolutely euphoric in terms of aircraft orders. Manufacturers had to invest massively in infrastructures and people in order to ramp up production and honor those orders. But these planes will not materialize into deliveries before a couple of years. There is plenty of time for many airlines to go bankrupt or otherwise hit financial turbulence. This will mean massive delivery deferrals, then cancellations, so that assembly lines cannot even hold onto their current backlog. Who knows, we may witness the very curious artefact of a negative net yearly order-book. In the real world, that's called jumping off a cliff with a lot of momentum.

The combined value of the orders for Airbus and Boeing planes exceeds $500 billion at list prices, so large-scale cancellations and deferrals could easily amount to tens of billions of dollars and affect suppliers of engines and other parts in addition to the jet makers. (from the Wall Street Journal)

What next?

When that happens, it will be catastrophic for all the people, organisations, or communities, which now contribute to the aircraft manufacturing adventure. This could send Seattle or Toulouse the way British textile, or French foundries went not so long ago. And do not get influenced by prejudice. Aerospace does not have an intrinsically higher value than those industries we have come to regard as lowly. Today's ghost slums were full of very busy and extremely proud people at the peak of their flourishing trade.

I do not know what the smartest move for aircraft manufacturers is, and I am glad I am not in Tom Enders' or Scott Carson's shoes. Publicly acknowledging that the air travel industry is on the brink of inevitable decline would discourage investors and hasten the fall. And yet, the earlier they can start downshifting, the smoother the forced landing. They should be cancelling the B787 (a little too late for that one) or A350 developments, and simply offer to fit new generation engines on good old 767s and A330s. That would already be at least half the fuel economy, for a much smaller cost, while not forcing new capacity on the market place. Or silently work on a totally new kind of bird, absolutely optimized for fuel efficiency, even if it changes the rules of the game: a Mach 0.62, 20,000 foot, turboprop, middle-range, high-capacity, DC-4-comfort machine that would be the soberest flying camel to get people where trains can't go for the next half century.

Or maybe steer away from this dwindling trade altogether and find a new frontier. How about giant wind turbines? If those do not sell, nothing will anyway, so that may be worth a try.

Bill Totten


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