Analysis: A330 vs B787 – Boeing’s Dreamliner and their reaction to the A330 success story

James Cahalin

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner assembly line at Boeing's plant in Everest, Washington.

On the 14th of July, 2014, the A330neo was launched to an astounded Farnborough show. Immediately successful, it gained 121 commitments from airlines and lessors, including 50 from Air Asia X.

“Dead on arrival” came Boeing’s response, but the neo had already claimed a win against Boeing: a 25 frame order placed by Delta Air Lines to partially replace their aging 767 aircraft, a replacement most had previously deemed completed by legacy 787 orders carried over from Northwest (2 years later, Delta cancelled their 787 order completely.) Indeed even as the early grounding of Boeing 787 aircraft took place, Airbus attempted to capitalize with 330ceo production slots advocated as a stopgap, an option some carriers and lessors took.

The first Airbus A330neo being rolled out in Toulouse. Photo Credits: Airbus

Boeing has remained bullish in the face of such competition, and with 1275 orders and 565+ deliveries, who can blame them? Asides from initial teething problems with its Lithium-ion batteries as the 787 entered service, it is a remarkable aircraft. The advancements made by Boeing and its partners to bring such technology to the sector are unrivaled. Even Airbus with their A350 and A380 programs retained a certain degree of legacy design. This enables them to continue with a new aircraft while relying on older and more established proven designs. Boeing has essentially built a brand new generation of aircraft from scratch, and in doing so have made one of the boldest moves in aviation since the Concorde.

Boeing has also gambled massively on this brand new unproven technology. Carbon fibre tube fuselage construction and bleedless engines are especially interesting as they seem to have enabled new levels of production and power efficiency never-before seen.

Fast forward to 10 years since introduction and the power of the 787 on optimized routes is second to none. On Trans-Pacific routes, the 787 is in a class of its own, with United finding success on its SFO routes to secondary Chinese airports such as Chengdu and Hangzhou, route pairings of the type that Boeing believes that the 787-8 in particular is optimized for. Meanwhile, Qantas has announced the first non-stop UK-Australia flight, operating the 787-9 Dreamliner from Perth to London Heathrow. And then there is the infectious growth of LCC’s (low-cost carriers) Norwegian and Scoot, whose long-haul existence is only economically viable thanks to the 787. Of course, there are other aircraft that can carry out these workloads, but within such tight parameters, few can compete with the economics that the 787 offers.

HNA Aviation employees welcoming United Airlines’ inaugural flight from San Francisco to Xi’an, China; Boeing says that the Dreamliner is optimized for such routes. Photo Credits: United

However, the 787’s optimized mission and its operators’ routes don’t always agree. For example, many legacy operators have adopted the 787 as a 767 replacement on the North Atlantic and as an aircraft suitable for intra-Asian flying. This is quite a costly investment, and one point that many believe proves the 787 is over-engineered for certain routes. Indeed a wholly owned 767-300 is economically competitive across the Atlantic, while an A330 can be a better option, as the lower initial cost of the aircraft, combined with similar operating characteristics across short to medium haul routes can offset the fuel saving costs of a brand-new 787. 787s also bring with them a slightly more trivial issue, their width, which can be a concern for smaller, space restricted airports. Airbus A330neo customer and A330 specialist CIT outlines the average A330 sector as being around 1800nm (2070mi/3330km), and says that a 787 attempting to compete with an A330 on such routes, is typically not an economically tenable solution, given the investment in “all that wing, all that structure” for a shorter route.

Despite the gulf in age between the jets and their design differences, the A330ceo can ply its trade within its traditional markets comfortably against the new kid on the block. However, does this mean an improved wing and newer engine on the A330neo will tip the scale in favor of the Toulousain titan? Airbus think so, and so do its customers, with 1650+ orders for all variants since inception and 210 alone for its brand new 800 & 900 variants, and a continued program of improvements for its A330ceo aircraft including its 242t MTOW variant. Airbus believes the A330 and A350 families complement each other with economic synergies unrivalled in all but the most niche of situations, and while it has no equivalent aircraft equipped with the same range and payload capabilities where long-haul low yield routes are concerned, they reckon that this market is small enough that they can afford to ignore it, a move made by Boeing previously with the 757 replacement.

Featured image by Boeing.