Did Boeing Ever Want To Make A Plane To Compete With The Airbus A380?

One question that we see pop up time and again is if Boeing ever felt threatened by the A380 and if they ever made any plans to beat it?

The answer to this question is rather more complicated, yes and no.

First some history…

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The Boeing 747 as a passenger plane

Before the A380 was even a concept at Airbus, Boeing built and developed the 747. But the 747 was never intended to be a passenger aircraft, but rather a cargo plane.

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The reason for this was the Concorde. Boeing saw the direction of the industry (moving towards speed and less about capacity) and believed that they would not be able to compete (Although they did work on an American Concorde). They then insisted on dominating the cargo market and building the best civilian lifting aircraft they could imagine.

However, the industry took a surprising twist and supersonic aircraft never really ‘took off’. Panam, a giant in the American airline business asked Boeing if the 747 could carry 300-400 passengers. And thus the passenger 747 was born.

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The first Boeing 747 factory. Source: Boeing

This giant aircraft was very useful to transport vast amounts of passengers between hubs, such as Chicago, New York, London etc. Airbus saw this hub model and believed that if they built an even bigger aircraft, they could out-compete Boeing.

But as Airbus built the A380, Boeing slowly realized one important fact, hub airports were getting full. Instead of the airports expanding, airlines were now looking at flying to alternative regional airports. The hub airport slowly was being replaced with a more convenient (for passengers) point to point model.

Additionally, when the A380 launched, it never really got the orders that Airbus was hoping for and ultimately proved to not be very popular. For these reasons, Boeing was and still isn’t very threatened by the A380.

But they did create some plans for a bigger plane to take it on just in case.

Boeing
Boeing actually did propose a fully double decked 747-400 before finalizing plans. Source: Wikimedia

What was Boeing’s back up plan?

Now, these plans have never been fully realized, but there is some evidence that Boeing planned an aircraft that could rival the A380, and a version of it is about to take flight.

The Boeing 777X program had a third version, the 777-10 further stretch. Unlike the two current production models, the 777-8 and 777-9, the 777-10 would have been able to carry 450 passengers. This would have placed it within striking distance of the A380 (Which can carry between 450-600 passengers).

“While no decisions have been made, we will continue to study 777X derivatives and seek customer input to develop products that provide the most value for customers.” – Doug Alder, a Boeing spokesman in 2016

Boeing even pitched it to Emirates and Singapore, the former who invested into Dreamliner aircraft and the later who bought the A350 instead (now used on the world’s longest route).

Now that the A380 has been canceled, these plans are most likely to be abandoned… unless of course, Airbus creates a further stretch of the A350-1000.

Overall, this question is answered by how Boeing always tries to find new market opportunities rather than competition. Instead of going supersonic, they developed heavy lifting, instead of going bigger they went point to point.

Boeing-797
The Boeing 797. Source: Boeing

Leading to the next question, what is the Boeing 797 supposed to be the alternative to.

What do you think? Did Boeing ever want to build an A380 rival?

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Michael

The 747 was never intended to be a passenger aircraft

Totally Wrong!!

“In 1965, Joe Sutter was transferred from Boeing’s 737 development team to manage the design studies for the new airliner, already assigned the model number 747” (Wikipedia)

Matt

Why does everyone of these articles talk about everything switching to a point to point model? If you’re flying long haul, you are still going through a hub. Hub and spoke model is alive and well. The A330, A350, 777 and 787 just created more spokes.

Mark McAdams

The story is pretty incomplete. It doesn’t even mention the full PASSENGER version of the 747 conceived as a full length double deck aircraft. Hmmmm. I could have written a better article.

Mark McAdams

To the author, Nicholas, the real trick is making a twin engine large aircraft. Airbus didn’t really get that. In fact, the wings on the A380 were inherently designed for the body to be lengthened by quite a bit. Thus they were incredibly heavy, and still a 4 engine design. Many authors are writing that the A380 was a head of its time, it was not. Not even close. We will never ever go back to a passenger 4 engine aircraft ever again, unless fuel prices go back to 1970’s pricing. Boeing, totally understood that. The 777X is on que.… Read more »

Joseph Baker

I spoke with an engineer at Boeing about the concept of a wider fuselage, or the BWB aircraft Boeing has been studying. The engineer told me it is unlikely that we will build the BWB for passengers, and the reasoning applies to any attempt to make a plane wider than 10 passengers, and that is the problem of g-forces on passenger comfort. The further you are seated from the centerline of the fuselage the greated distance you travel during roll maneuvers, like on a teeter-totter. You reach a point where many more travelers will experience motion-sickness. While Boeing decided against… Read more »

Jeff

Fuel prices ARE back to 1970’s levels. In fact, they are LOWER than 1970’s levels.
$1.00 in 1972 is worth $6.02 today.
$1.00 in 1978 is worth $3.86 today.
Here is the inflation calculator website. Try it yourself:
https://www.usinflationcalculator.com/

Bill Barclift

Interesting article, but lacking in detail. I worked as an engineer for Boeing for many years and supported the double-deck, A380 equivalent (new plane, not 747 derivative). During the years 1990-1995 Boeing worked on a an aircraft dubbed NLA, New Large Airplane. If I recall correctly, Boeing entered a marketing agreement with Airbus to jointly understand the market for such a large aircraft. Boeing ultimately decided that it wasn’t in their best interest and/or 2 airframer’s entering this market would bankrupt Boeing.

Too Old

Agree Mark. Will be interesting to see why Boeing broke the cycle of immediately responding to the next threat to come from Airbus. Instead they have doubled down on design and are not feeling pressured to respond, whatever Airbus rack up in sales in the meantime.
When they finally do reveal, it may be a very different concept to the now fairly thrashed tube and wing.

K.C. DSenDooven

Very interesting comments. Many – MANY years ago — I got talking to a 747 Pilot, after landing from a flight on a 747. YR/ ?? I would guess 1980-ish (I flew CA to Korea, 3-4-5 X a year on business then. The pilot, just casually , told me he had seen plans by Boeing to make a 747 model, with 2 decks, the full length of the plane He didn’t say what the passenger capacity would be — I just remember this when the first A380 came out.

Dirk Rockland

Very poorly researched, and Pan Am is two words. Early concepts for the 747 were complete double deckers. yup. The models still exist. The author has completely missed the boat on that. It was always intended for the passenger market; there was a contingent plan to build them as freighters if supersonic took off as the money was already being shelled out for development. My final gripe, “American Concorde.” “American supersonic” would be more correct. “Concorde” isn’t a type of airplane, it’s the name of a particular model. Sad that we study language for 12 to 16 years, and this… Read more »

Mark Wainwright

Exactly. I stopped reading after “Panam”.

Dennis Heidner

There so many incorrect statements and myths in the story, it should be pulled or re-written. Commercial freight wasn’t a big market at the time the 747 family was launched. Most freight was done via train or ships, later trucks. Fedex didn’t yet exist, UPS was still fairly young, trade with China was virtually non-existent, trade with Japan/ Korea was done via ship. The launch customers were PanAm and TWA… they wanted to move passengers. Boeing at the time wasn’t building cargo planes for the military – that was Lockheed and McDonald Douglas. Boeing did early in the process see… Read more »

Clinton K.

Dennis, I wrote a long long reply stating much the same and remarked at the extensively poor journalism. One correction to your post: I read recently in Forbes (or the WSJ) that McNerney (on behalf of himself & and others at the top at Boeing “duped” EADS/Airbus into the joint market study. Airbus could not believe their luck and smoothly took the offer to finally glean actual expertise and knowledge from Boeing (that would “kill” the 747). McNerney said (in another article) he saw the look of disbelief when asked to do the study. Europe, since the financial disaster of… Read more »

Howard S Shubs

797 should be suborbital.

Paulo M

The 747 was indeed designed to carry passengers from the very beginning. This was a Pan American request. The aircraft’s excellent cargo carrying characteristics where really the backup design requirement for when SST took off. This way, the considerable design effort would pay off as the 747 would find use beyond the passenger airlines. Boeing designed longevity into the thing, and that’s why the 747 design has not yet become obsolete. In its second role, 747 remains in a class of its own. Boeing’s own Congress-funded SST would have seated 350 passengers — it would have been a giant ready… Read more »

Sunil Harman

From 1993-1995 Boeing under the New Large Airplane (NLA) program evaluated and ultimately abandoned the B747-500/600 variants of the venerable B747 platform with the 500/600 being the design capacity for each new aircraft. Due to the length and wingspan of the derivatives exceeding Aerodome Design Index E and pushing the Index F design standards, these derivatives would not have been in the A380 acceptance class designed as a new platform to operate on Index E Aerodromes. The A380 was clearly ahead of its time and will be proven by 2030 when Hub Airports having to accommodate an increasing number of… Read more »