Back in 2002 I was marching through the exhibition rooms at the Farnborough Air Show when I came across a scale model of Boeing's vision of the future, tucked away in a glass case by the door. It was the Sonic Cruiser. A glamorous, futuristic passenger aircraft that looked like a cross between Concorde and the Valkyrie bomber of the 1960s.
It looked at first like a US-backed replacement for Concorde, but although it was designed to carry more passengers than Concorde, its "ultra high-speed" was sub-sonic, not super-sonic. I was surprised that the model wasn't in a more prominent location, and maybe I should have recognised it as a sign. Within a year the project was dropped. I was reminded of the Sonic Cruiser when the EU started talking again about "Open Skies".
The aircraft was Boeing's response to Airbus's knockout punch: the 380—a bigger and better successor to Boeing's flagship, the 747 Jumbo.
In not so many words, Boeing rather petulantly said, "Fine! Go ahead! See if we care!" And here comes the important bit—"Because we're not playing that game anymore. We don't think that the future of air transport lies in big aeroplanes delivering hundreds of passengers to hub airports, where they change onto smaller aircraft to travel on to their final destination.
"We think the airlines will want to fly fewer passengers, quickly, point-to-point."
By the end of 2003 Boeing was in the doldrums, with the Jumbo trumped and the Sonic Cruiser dumped. The airlines had told them they weren't interested in speed, they wanted fuel efficiency. But now in 2007 there's a new spring in Boeing's step, not least because the elusive point-to-point promised land they foresaw may be on the horizon.
While Airbus is struggling to get the overdue A380 into production, Boeing's of-the-moment, fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner will shortly be making its maiden flight, just in time for a second round of Open Skies talks (March 2008) to open up all those point-to-point transatlantic routes between European and US regional airports.
It could be Boeing's year, just as long as homeland security doesn't get in the way.