With the airline industry posting big profits, there's big money to be made in commercial aerospace manufacturing. As Boeing (NYSE:BA), Airbus Group (NASDAQOTH:EADSY), and Bombardier (TSX:BBD.B) (NASDAQOTH:BDRBF) try to grab as many orders as possible, their new aircraft are bringing key new features to airlines worldwide.
Boeing 737 MAX
Unlike most other highly followed new aircraft, the Boeing 737 MAX shares its body with a plane developed nearly 50 years ago. But this isn't the first redesign of the Boeing 737. The first versions of the Boeing 737 were launched in the 1960s, with redesigned versions being launched in the early 1980s and mid-1990s.
The Boeing 737 MAX is the latest redesign and has some impressive features to separate it from previous versions and current competition. Among the key selling points to airlines is Boeing's claimed 8% fuel-economy advantage over similar existing aircraft.
Boeing achieves this improvement through reducing weight with new composite parts, improving aerodynamics with features such as redesigned winglets, and using the CFM LEAP-1B engine as a more fuel-efficient power source.
While airlines stand to benefit from reduced fuel costs, passengers get an array of new features as well. Top on the list is the Boeing Sky Interior, which appeared on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and has now found its way into Boeing's latest aircraft designs.
So what makes up the Boeing Sky Interior? Variable illumination replaces older lighting styles and adjusts intensity and color to the time of day. The new interior also comes with larger overhead bins to accommodate the carry-on bags of today's travelers, as well as larger windows to give those passengers a better view and more natural light.
Airlines have already begun to beat a path to Boeing's door to get their hands on this new plane. Today, American Airlines Group, Air Canada, Southwest Airlines, WestJet Airlines, and United Airlines are just a few of the buyers that together make up the 2,000-plus orders for the Boeing 737 MAX the aerospace manufacturer has received today.
With deliveries expected to begin in 2017, it will be a few more years before you can get on board this aircraft. But when deliveries start, expect to see the Boeing 737 MAX serve many of the routes currently served by existing Boeing 737 models and other aircraft of similar size.
Airbus A350 XWB
While sales of the Airbus A380 haven't lived up to expectations, Airbus Group hopes to be more successful in its launch of the Airbus A350 XWB. This aircraft, designed to compete with the Boeing 777 and Boeing 787 models, features a basket of new technologies the manufacturer is ready to roll out in a new widebody aircraft model.
The Airbus A350 XWB brings a variety of new materials to the table, mostly for the goal of weight reduction and the fuel efficiency that comes with the savings. The airframe is more than half composite but also includes recyclable titanium and a special type of carbon fiber reinforced plastic.
Airbus also looks toward the engines for fuel savings, bringing in a set of Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines to power the twin-engine aircraft. All combined, Airbus claims a 25% fuel burn advantage over its current long-range competitor.
Passenger comfort is also a key area for the Airbus A350 XWB as airlines look to be able to sell a better flight experience. Through its air management system, this aircraft can change the cabin air every two to three minutes while keeping temperature under control by monitoring up to eight control zones for passengers and another four for the crew.
While sitting in their seats, passengers can also enjoy more space. Although the airlines themselves will decide how to space out seats, Airbus has the standard width for the economy-class seats at 18 inches, compared with 17 inches on many Boeing 777 aircraft.
Currently with 750 orders, the Airbus A350 XWB has a diverse group of customers, including Air France, Etihad Airways, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, and United Airlines. Deliveries of the aircraft are expected to begin later this year with Qatar Airways and continue in 2015, with Finnair as the European launch customer.
Bombardier C Series
Canadian plane and train manufacturer Bombardier is best known in the aerospace industry for its Canadair regional jets that have become a staple of regional airline fleets. But Bombardier is looking to challenge the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 family by developing its larger C Series.
Consisting of two models, the CS100 and CS300, Bombardier is moving the CS100 through flight testing and deliveries first. But since the CS300 is essentially a lengthened version of the CS100, what happens to the CS100 is meaningful to the entire program.
The Bombardier C Series touts a 15% lower cash operating cost and 20% lower fuel consumption as primary selling points in its competition with Airbus and Boeing models of similar size. Bombardier also notes that the C Series still has a 12% lower cash operating cost even when compared with re-engined aircraft from its rivals.
These advantages are largely achieved through fuel savings resulting from a combination of aerodynamics and a special geared turbofan engine. Together, these factors bring another benefit to operators: reduced noise levels. This feature gives operators more flexibility at noise-restricted airports and is a key reason for why the Bombardier C Series is the aircraft of choice for Porter Airlines' potential operations out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.
Not only can the C Series reduce airline costs, but passengers could feel the difference as well. Larger overhead bins make stowing carry-on baggage easier, and larger windows let more natural light into the cabin. In addition, the Bombardier C Series will have the greatest seat width of any single-aisle aircraft, giving passengers a little more room on their flight.
For now, Bombardier hasn't received many C Series orders from major airlines except for Korean Air and Lufthansa, which is ordering for a subsidiary. The manufacturer is targeting 300 orders by the time deliveries begin, a number that may or may not happen, with current orders of a little over 200 aircraft. Deliveries to the first customers are being targeted for next year but do carry the potential for further delays if flight testing doesn't go smoothly.
But it could be a while for North American passengers to be able to get on board a Bombardier C Series. If Porter Airlines gets the go-ahead to operate jet aircraft at Toronto City Airport, the C Series should show up there. However, Porter is a smaller airline, and none of the major U.S. or Canadian carriers have placed a C Series order.
Tech battle in the air
Boeing, Airbus, and Bombardier are all releasing key new aircraft over the next few years, and they all feature cost savings that make them attractive to airlines, as well as passenger comfort features that matter to travelers -- which should help carriers to sell more seats.
As airlines bounce back from the recession, watch for more orders as carriers look to refresh their fleets with the latest technology.
Alexander MacLennan owns shares of Air Canada, American Airlines Group, and Tesla Motors and has options on American Airlines Group. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.