The tallest order Airbus has ever faced is making planes more sustainable. But a top Airbus exec is optimistic.
Airbus is racing to meet strong global demand — with the aim of delivering 720 planes this year. But in the long run, it will have to fight for share because of a growing rivalry with China’s manufacturers.
“We have a huge backlog, 8,000 airplanes at this point — and goes into the future,” said Airbus Americas Chairman and CEO Jeff Knittel. “Demand is exceptionally strong, both on single aisle and widebody.”
Knittel — speaking at the Skift Aviation Forum in Fort Worth, Texas, on Wednesday — attributed the demand to industry growth and shorter replacement cycles for older aircraft.
The Airbus Americas chairman said they’ve improved their delivery times for aircraft since the pandemic. They’ve also improved their supply chain partnerships.
Sustainable Fuel as a Priority
Sustainability, not faster travel, is being prioritized by Airbus. Knittel also doesn’t expect supersonic planes like the Concorde to “have a huge market.”
“Our focus is sustainability,” said Knittel. “If you’re focused on sustainability, then having an airplane with fewer seats, flying faster, which is a big advantage, we’re going toward more an approach of density,” said Knittel.
Airbus is putting its investment into building hydrogen-powered planes to achieve carbon neutrality. The aircraft company aims to have a hydrogen airplane in service by 2035. Airbus is investing in sustainable aviation fuel as it converts its fleets to hydrogen.
“The key for us today is hydrogen,” he said. “We’re putting in a lot of effort and money into hydrogen.”
On the topic of autonomous airline travel, pilots aren’t going anywhere. Airbus flew its widebody A350 without a pilot controlling it.
Even though the flight was a success, Knittell said pilots would be on the flights for safety supervision purposes and to reassure the public.
Cybersecurity Threats on the Rise
As the aviation industry undergoes digitalization, Airbus is spending a “huge amount” of money and time on cybersecurity.
“Cyberattackers, they are pretty innovative, so we have to continue to invest in not only Airbus but the supply chain,” said Knittell.
Rivalry from China’s Planemakers
On the topic of Chinese air manufacturers, Knittel said not to underestimate them. Chinese plane makers are producing their first plane: Comac C919. The challenge is not only building an airplane but the system to support it, said Knittell.
Chinese manufacturers will likely sell to Chinese airlines first, then sell to companies that have countertrade with China, a 15-20 year process, said Knittell. Once finished, they will be in a position to be more competitive on a global basis.
“It’s going to be a process, but the Chinese have been known for their patience,” he said.
Don’t Order Too Many Planes and the Biggest Risks to Growth: Air Lease
Steven Udvar-Hazy’s advice seems particularly timely: “Usually, airlines don’t go bust by having too few airplanes; they usually go bust for having too many that they can’t service properly financially and operationally.”
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Photo credit: Jeff Knittel, Airbus Americas Inc. Chairman and CEO, speaking on stage at Skift Aviation Forum in Fort Worth, TX, November 2023. Skift