In high-stakes airliner wars, Airbus wears the 'green' hat

Native-born Seattleites such as I tend to reflexively favor Boeing aircraft. It's hard not to develop such loyalty when half your childhood friends had Boeing-employed parents. I grew up checking each plane that flew overhead to see if it was "one of ours" or a competitor's.

But my regard for the Seattle jet maker is tarnished substantially now, because Boeing, not its current rival Airbus, is wearing the black hat in the present airplane-sale wars.

Although neither Boeing's newest airplane, the 7E7, nor Airbus's newest, the A380, is flying in anything but computer simulations yet, the two models are already locked in a desperate struggle to dominate the future of commercial aviation — as news from the Farnborough Air Show shows.

The 7E7 is billed, by Boeing, as a nimble, efficient, versatile plane that makes a huge leap in fuel efficiency over its predecessors. The A380 is billed, by Boeing, as a gluttonous behemoth — two stories and 555 seats.

But the Airbus plane is actually the more efficient in energy use, per passenger mile.

The fundamental difference is this: Airbus, like the European societies that have given rise to it, has accepted the need to avert climate change. It expects the need to minimize greenhouse gas emissions actually to change human behavior over the next two decades. It expects, for example, that through either regulation or taxation, the cost of burning jet fuel at high altitudes will rise substantially.

That high cost, it believes, will encourage airlines to assemble large numbers of passengers at regional hubs before jetting them on long-distance flights, such as those across continents and oceans. Residents of Portland will have to fly to Seattle or San Francisco, for example, before boarding giant jets for Singapore.

Boeing, like Americans, assumes that climate change will not redirect current market trends in any meaningful way. The market is trending toward direct flights from everywhere to everywhere, which means that smaller planes will do more of the flying — Portlanders flying nonstop to Singapore, for example. This trend makes sense because people value their time, and nonstop flights use less time. But nonstop flights with fewer passengers do use more fuel, much more fuel per person.

In short, Airbus values the climate more and passengers' time less; Boeing, the opposite. Or, that's what the two companies are betting the aircraft market will value over the decades ahead.

The terrestrial analog to Boeing and Airbus is cars and buses. Cars save their drivers' time on many trips, and each car uses less fuel than each bus. But buses use far less fuel per passenger, when they are full. And most cities, crippled with congestion and pollution, are now trying to find ways to discourage driving and encourage transit ridership.

Both Boeing and Airbus are making their plans to seek profit, not out of moral conscience. Airbus expects a climate-motivated alteration in the trend toward direct flights; Boeing does not. Both companies' expectations are reasonable reflections of the political climates in their respective homelands.

Unfortunately for Cascadians, once an industrial colossus like Boeing invests based on one set of market conditions (in this case, no serious climate-protection rules), it has a considerable political interest in seeing that set of market conditions maintained. We should not be surprised to hear Boeing chiming in with the automakers and oil drillers and coal miners in the years ahead.

It's enough to make this Northwesterner quietly cheer for the hated rival, like a Yankee fan in Mariner country. It's enough to make me feel a little bit relieved that Boeing, while its largest manufacturing plants are still here, has moved its headquarters to Chicago. If Boeing is going to behave like a car manufacturer, let it not stand as an icon of our place.

And it makes me even less enthusiastic about the massive tax breaks the state of Washington granted Boeing to make sure the 7E7 will be assembled in Everett.

Perhaps the 7E7 will lose the global sales race and, chastened, Boeing will retool to take seriously the atmosphere it flies through. Then I'll take pride again to check if each plane is "one of ours."

Alan Thein Durning is executive director of Northwest Environment Watch, which publishes the Cascadia Scorecard ( ), a regional index of progress in health, the economy, population, energy, sprawl, forests and pollution.