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Was Boeing Playing Chess? We Examine Why Boeing Introduced The Sonic Cruiser

There has been a lot of speculation about whether Boeing used the Sonic Cruiser to distract other companies away from its 787 program. In the chess game that is commercial aviation, it appears as if Boeing may have knowingly promoted the Sonic Cruiser to trick competitor Airbus into building the A380. Airbus poured billions of dollars into the A380 program and now there is very little demand for these superjumbo jets. Checkmate.

It is impossible to know for sure if this was a strategic ploy on the part of Boeing since both sides remain tight-lipped about it.

The end result? Boeing ended the Sonic Cruiser project a few months after Airbus started making the A380s. Instead, they shifted over to the (slower) Mach 0.85 but more fuel efficient 787 Dreamliner.

Today Airbus is left holding the bag, so to speak, as the market is now flooded with A380s without a home. Companies are retiring the superjumbos and Emirates recently canceled a huge order.  In a rare move for the airline industry, Amedeo (a major leasing firm) has launched a new aircraft-for-lease program in an attempt to make use of the Airbus planes.  Time will tell whether their plan will be successful.

Sonic Cruiser: The Airliner That Never Left the Drawing Board But Still Boosted Boeing

For two years in the early 2000s, Boeing claimed that the classic engine shape it invented in the 1950s, with the engines under sweptback wings, were outdated. Instead, the airplane maker went on and on about the Sonic Cruiser which had two vertical fins, a tail first design, and cranked delta wing. It was fifteen percent faster than most jets, cruising at Mach 0.98 instead of the typical Mach .80 for most airliners.

Computer model of Boeing Sonic Cruiser, abandoned after the launch of the Airbus 380 program. Photo Future Concepts. Photo: Boeing

Boeing executives made a huge deal of keeping the few customers who knew about the program silent and made a big fuss about unveiling the jet at the Paris airshow in June 2001. Boeing claimed customers would opt for speed over lower cost and would be willing to pay a premium for it, even though they cited no data as to why they believed this to be true.

When asked if the Sonic Cruiser was viable, Boeing’s commercial airline exec Alan Mulally is quoted in Air & Space Magazine as saying, “Can it be done? Absolutely! Can we do it economically? Absolutely! Is it the right thing to do for the travelers of the world? Absolutely!”

Yet at the time, analysts said the marketplace simply could not sustain two companies making superjumbo jets. Kieran Daily, of Air Transport Intelligence, told CNN, “Both of them knew in their heart of hearts that there simply isn’t the marketplace for two (super-jumbos) and in the end Boeing decided that frankly the Airbus would win and gave up leaving them free to explore another sector.”

And interestingly enough, that is exactly what happened. Airlines were suffering huge economic losses after 9-11 and needed to cut costs. Passenger count was way down and those that did fly were not willing to pay a premium. Once Boeing abandoned the Sonic Cruiser, it went on to develop the 7E7 (787) which out-sold the A380 4-to-1. Put this way, it certainly appears as if Boeing set a strategic trap for Airbus.

Boeing’s Plan Never Added Up

The A380 and Sonic Cruiser are two totally different aircraft and it is hard to figure out why one would affect the other. The Sonic Cruiser and the 787 are both mid-size aircraft. So why would that push Airbus to react in the superjumbo jet sector?

Another head-scratcher is Boeing’s 747-8, the second largest passenger plane in history, that was unveiled in 2005. If Boeing knew the superjumbos were doomed to fail, why would they introduce the 747-8 to compete with the A380? The plane had even worse sales than the A-380, with only 51 sales for the passenger version.  The type is only buoyed by freighter sales.  Boeing wound up with a $1 billion write off for the program.

The story surrounding this Boeing/Airbus smack down can be seen two ways.

If Boeing didn’t see a future for superjumbos, why in the world would they make the 747-8 too? Instead of strategy against rival Airbus, the Sonic Cruiser may have been simply a ploy to get Boeing more media attention at a time when they were slipping behind their arch rival.

If media attention is what Boeing sought though, it worked. To this day, both Airbus or Boeing executives decline comment on the issue.  It’s a mystery that we may never solve.

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Kim Clark

Written by Kim Clark

Former CNN Radio News Network anchor Kim Clark is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in the aviation industry and financial markets. She currently freelances for S&P Global and works as a club and event Disc Jockey in Atlanta, Georgia, after having held positions doing news on radio morning shows and holding down the position of Music Director of commercial radio stations owned by Cumulus and Clear Channel.

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