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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
Q&A: What is the plane of the future?

Boeing has said it is to scrap plans for a superjumbo in favour of a sleeker, faster jetliner. But what will airlines and passengers of the future want - speed or size? BBC News Online considers the issues.

What will be the benefits of Boeing's new plane?

Boeing's 'Sonic Cruiser' would be a smaller, sleeker, faster jetliner, carrying 100 to 300 people, while cruising at just under the speed of sound.

It would fly about 15% faster than current civil aircraft. That could mean cutting about an hour off an eight hour flight.

The company says the new plane will open "a new chapter in commercial aviation". It will be able to fly longer range, at higher altitudes, with environmental benefits of quieter landings and take-offs.

It has a radical new design. "I am surprised Boeing is going for something so futuristic," said one aviation expert.

Meanwhile Airbus is developing the superjumbo ...

Boeing's announcement is a reversal of its plan to develop a superjumbo.

As such, it can be seen as a victory for the future of Airbus's twin-deck superjumbo, the A380, which is widely expected to revolutionise air travel in the same way as Boeing's 747 did when it was introduced more than 30 years ago.

The doubledecker aircraft will, according to Airbus, offer "more capacity and passenger comfort than any other aircraft to date, setting a completely new standard in the way people fly".

Passenger versions of the superjumbo can carry 555 travellers, which will be more like a flying hotel than a plane, likely to include luxury features such as gyms, shops and stand-up bars.

It will have an 8,000 mile range, allowing it to travel from, say, Los Angeles to Sydney in one trip.

Around six airlines, including Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic, have already placed 66 firm orders for the A380 which will go into service in 2005.

Is there room for both types of planes?

Boeing says the future of airtravel is in smaller, faster hi-tech jets flying to longer range destinations. Airbus is putting its money into the new superjumbo, which, with its huge capacity, will have the potential to transport passengers more cheaply than any other plane.

In aircraft development terms, the two planemakers are going down totally different paths, so who is right?

Boeing's point-of-view is that travellers in the next 10 to 20 years will be far more time-sensitive than they are now.

They will not be prepared to travel via connecting flights to hub airports but will want to travel point-to-point on a faster, but smaller, aircraft.

In the United States, for example, there are plenty of airports with spare capacity, a situation that would seem to lend itself ideally to the new Boeing 'Sonic Cruiser'.

For its part, Airbus points to forecasts which show that passenger traffic will nearly triple over the next 20 years and they say that's why a new, larger aircraft will be needed.

There could be room for both, according to Chris Jasper, the Business Editor of Flight International Magazine.

"There may be a market for the A380 travelling into the very large Asian hub airports," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"At the same time on transatlantic services, there may be a market for a much smaller, faster aircraft".

Have airlines given any indications of their preferences?

The airlines are the key players of course because Boeing will be depending on them to place orders for the new aircraft.

Singapore airlines, United Airlines and Air Canada are among those who have all expressed an interest in the new airliner.

"Air Canada would definitely line up in the extremely interested prospective customer category," said its chief Robert Milton.

But for Maurice Flanagan, group managing director of Emirates airlines, the key issue is the economics of the new Boeing 'Sonic Cruiser'.

"The growth in air transport is really driven by price," he told BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme.

"If it brings the seat/mile costs down then that would be great, but there is a big questionmark against fuel consumption. The engine technology [of the new plane] assumes the speeds we have got at the moment."

Mr Flanagan also said that if airlines are flying to a major world airport such as London, then they need to get as many people as possible into the plane as landing slots are restricted.

That would seem to be a vote for the superjumbo.

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See also:

19 Dec 00 | Business
Super-jumbo cleared for take-off
16 Jan 01 | Business
Superjumbo wins first US buyer
30 Mar 01 | Business
Boeing dumps plans for super jumbo
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