If there’s one thing I’m even less qualified to predict than my automotive predictions, it has to be on what’s happening in the aerospace industry. But, that didn’t stop me before, so why stop now?
2017 is going to be a relatively boring year for space
I say this right after SpaceX has just launched for the first time since the September anomaly and there are now 10 Iridium Next satellites in orbit. Both the launch and landing on “Just Read the Instructions” went off without a hitch. SpaceX is definitely going to steal the show this year, and hopefully they’ll be able to resume, and even accelerate, their torrid pace of launches. The most exciting launch will be the oft delayed Falcon Heavy demonstration flight from the old Space Shuttle and Saturn V launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, followed by the first “Crew Dragon” demonstration late this summer.
Neither the “Crew Dragon” or Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft are going to carry passengers this year though. For that we’ve got to wait until 2018. In fact, 2018 looks pretty promising for aerospace in general, with the James Webb and the wheel-less Mars InSight lander.
The big question marks are Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Virgin Galactic has resumed testing of SpaceShip 2, but I’m guessing that 2017 is going to come and go before any paying passengers get to ride on it. As for Blue Origin? Who knows. They probably have the best shot of launching passengers on sub-orbital flights this year, but Jeff Bezos is so tight lipped that it’s difficult to say with any real confidence.
We’ll see a lot fewer 747s, A340s and A380s
Over in the aeronautical side of the things, airlines will continue to downsize from their super-jumbos in favour of 777s, 787s, A330s and A350s. There’s pretty much no reason to fly with more than two engines at this point, and three engine jumbos like the MD-11 and L-1011 are already ancient history. That leaves Boeing with the “Queen of the Skies” and Airbus stuck with the A340 and the A380. Even with fuel prices staying at relatively low levels, it still makes more economic sense to fly longer haul routes with smaller planes than it does to fly a plane with twice as many engines. That includes the price of additional crew, which is still cheaper than all of the fuel which gets consumed.
United already said it’d accelerate phasing out of their 747s this year, and Delta has said the same thing. That means there won’t be a single US carrier flying 747s by the end 2017. Meanwhile Airbus is souring on the A380neo (new engine option) which means there aren’t going to be a lot of fuel savings any time soon.
… and a lot more narrow bodies
For smaller planes, it’s still unclear whether the Bombardier CSeries will take off. Embraer is taking their fight against Bombardier to the WTO, however it’s not like Bombardier is making any money at this point. The real turning point could be when Delta starts to fly the CSeries and if its cost competitive and reliable. That’s not expected until spring of 2018, so it could be another long year for Bombardier.
The 737 MAX on the other hand will see its first delivery this year, and presumably we’ll start seeing them in the US shortly afterward, starting with Southwest. The MAX isn’t a new airframe though, and it just replaces the engines to be something around 14% more efficient. That’s not much different than the A320neo which Airbus introduced last year.