By Dan Catchpole Herald writer
LYNNWOOD — The commercial jetliner industry is riding a historically high wave, and its biggest players are ramping up for blue skies and happy days ahead.
But warning lights are flashing, some industry watchers say.
Airlines have been on an unprecedented spending spree fueled, in part, by low interest rates, steadily growing numbers of passengers, and — until the past few years — high jet fuel prices. Emerging markets, especially China, have been among the biggest buyers.
China’s economy has stumbled, though. Fuel prices have dropped and stayed low, making newer, more fuel-efficient airplanes less attractive for some airlines. Investment dollars that had flowed to emerging markets in recent years dramatically reversed course in 2015, with hundreds of billions of dollars fleeing for more stable markets.
“The factors that got us here are no longer really in play,” industry analyst Richard Aboulafia told attendees at the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance’s annual conference Wednesday.
Plans by Boeing and Airbus to take airplane production to record-high levels by 2020 are “powered by hubris,” he said.
Aboulafia is vice president of the Teal Group, a consulting firm based in Fairfax, Virginia.
“We have a couple more years of gentle growth,” but not enough to justify the production increases the two aerospace giants are ramping up, he said.
If Boeing and Airbus don’t trim their plans, “then we are left with the mother of all hangovers,” Aboulafia said.
So far, Boeing customers have not been delaying or downsizing existing orders, said Randy Tinseth, Boeing vice president for marketing.
Yes, China’s economy has softened, but the changes are driven by a more consumer-focused economy, which is good for commercial air travel, he said.
The country’s aviation market is still vastly underserved and is headed for double-digit growth, Tinseth said.
At the same time, Boeing Commercial Airplanes announced Wednesday plans to cut its workforce to keep costs down.
Airbus expects China’s economy to slow down a bit in the next few years, but not enough to throw off the European airplane makers’ plans to ramp up airplane production, said Simon Pickup, strategic marketing director for Airbus Americas.
The Airbus Group plans to increase production of its popular single-aisle A320 to 60 airplanes a month in 2019. Those plans include a new final assembly line in Hamburg, Germany, which will be designed and built by Lynnwood-based Nova-Tech Engineering.
The Airbus A321neo, a larger version of the A320 with new engines, first flew Tuesday, and is slated for its first delivery by the end of the year. The plane has made up more and more of orders for Airbus single-aisle airplanes in the past few years. In 2014, it accounted for 36 percent of those orders. That was up to 40 percent last year.
The company is confident that a long-range version of the A321neo can meet market demand that used to be served by Boeing’s 757, which is no longer made, Pickup said.
On Wednesday, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner told employees in a webcast that the company is still considering making a new airplane to compete for those sales. Boeing could decide as soon as this year, according to company employees who saw the webcast.
At the same time, he stressed the extreme cost pressure Boeing faces from competition with Airbus and other factors. That reality is pushing the company to begin cutting its workforce, which has already been on the decline in Washington. It has dropped from 87,023 workers in late 2012 to 78,247 as of Jan. 26.