Commentary: The Battle over Boeing's Radical New Plane

Boeing seems to be dragging its feet on the blended wing

By Stanley Holmes

Boeing Co.'s (BA ) future in commercial aviation rests on the outcome of an intense behind-the-scenes struggle over what kind of new airplane it should build next. Senior management in Boeing's commercial airplane division seems determined to take a conservative course, gradually upgrading the same kinds of planes the company builds today.

In contrast, a cadre of Boeing engineers wants the company to gamble on a futuristic, triangular-shaped aircraft design, dubbed the Blended-Wing Body, which Boeing inherited from McDonnell Douglas Corp. researchers when the two companies merged in 1997. They say this plane, the BWB, would be cheaper to build and fly than anything rival Airbus has on its drawing boards. And it could secure Boeing's leading position in the industry for at least another decade.

Managers who oppose the blended wing say the design has structural problems that outweigh its advantages. The argument has some merit: The radical design does not allow for windows at most passenger seats. The tailless BWB may also make for a bumpy ride compared with ordinary jetliners. And the composite materials needed to build the plane could prove more expensive than designers originally projected.

If such technical issues were really at the crux of this debate, BWB advocates within Boeing could probably address them. In fact, other forces are at work. Many critics inside and outside the company complain of a cultural shift in which engineering spirit is subordinated to financial concerns. Driven by the need to produce profits, senior management has moved its focus to defense and space businesses, away from the hotly competitive commercial-aircraft market. When it comes to the blended wing, say sources, they are simply unwilling to take risks.

In some regards, Boeing's hesitation is understandable. Many of its customers on the commercial side are in dire financial straits. And Boeing itself is under constant pressure from Wall Street to show returns. In at least one scenario, the company might ride the current wave of defense spending, contain losses, avoid risks, and emerge in a few years bolder and ready to build for the future.

Nonetheless, Boeing's current conservative mood is troubling because the company is at a crossroads much like the one it faced 50 years ago, when it was pondering a risky move from propellers to jet engines. Back then, the company's legendary chief engineer, Edward C. Wells, helped settle the issue by declaring that "life is too short to spend it working on propellers." There is no such voice at the top today. Indeed, the company may be poised to quietly quash the biggest breakthrough in airliner design in decades.

Based on computer simulations, a blended-wing plane would be 32% cheaper to fly than Airbus' new A380 airliner--which is winning orders mainly because it offers 15% lower operating costs than a Boeing 747. The savings are mostly in fuel, which the BWB conserves thanks to its efficient design. The wing has much more aerodynamic lift than drag, and the structure weighs less than conventional jets. Indeed, Boeing's studies show that the blended wing would be far cheaper to operate than any current or proposed airliner with 250 to 500 seats.

That's why at least four of the world's major carriers--Lufthansa (DLAKY ), FedEx (FDX ), Singapore Airlines, and United Airlines (UAL )--want Boeing's commercial-airplane division to make the blended wing a priority. And some have urged Boeing to forget about another pet project, a high-speed jet known as the Sonic Cruiser. Airline execs haven't pulled any punches at meetings with Boeing officials. At a mid-October gathering, a senior European airline exec dismissed a Boeing manager's presentation, saying: "We do not want to talk about the higher-speed and higher-cost Sonic Cruiser aircraft anymore." That plane would cut 45 to 90 minutes off long routes, but given its higher fuel costs, "we didn't see any value for the amount of time it would save," says Gordon McKinzie, director of new aircraft programs for United Airlines Inc.

Despite the fact that many execs are intrigued by the blended wing, Boeing doesn't seem to be listening to its customers. The plane maker made little effort to provide technical briefings on the blended-wing design. Some airlines have actually paid to fly in the BWB program director for an unofficial briefing--after which they invariably rave about what they heard. One enthusiastic customer even considered offering a billion dollars to help subsidize further development of the aircraft, industry sources say.

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Holmes covers aviation from Seattle.

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