Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner told an audience in Seattle a year ago that “there is not a relationship in the world like the one we have with Japan.”
That relationship was shaken this week when Japan Airlines announced a blockbuster deal to buy A350 jets from Airbus.
But the Boeing-Japan fortress isn’t about to crumble quickly, observers say.
Near term, party politics in Japan give Boeing an edge over Airbus for a pending big jet order by the second big Japanese airline, All Nippon Airways.
And Japanese manufacturing partners will likely supply all the fuselage panels on Boeing’s soon-to-be-launched 777X program, just as they do for today’s 777.
Long term, though, Airbus should gain further market share in Japan, and the dual sourcing by the airlines could spread to the Japanese manufacturers.
“There is no agreement between Japan and Boeing that we will cooperate forever,” said Norio Yamanouchi, a Japanese aviation industry consultant who played a lead role in creating and developing the close relationship between Boeing and Japan. “It might not be a bad idea for Japan to work with Airbus on future airplane programs.”
A former top Boeing executive, who still works in the aviation business and asked for anonymity, said “it’s inevitable Airbus will continue to chip away at Boeing’s dominance in Japan.”
Analyst Adam Pilarski of consulting firm Avitas said Japan’s big aircraft-parts manufacturers — especially Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Fuji, the three “heavies” — remain “super critical to Boeing.”
Yamanouchi, who is 73, has a special perspective.
Working for the Japan Aircraft Development Corp. in Seattle, he helped Boeing win JAL and ANA as launch customers for the 767 and 777 jets in return for Japan’s industrial participation in those programs.
Then, in 2005, Airbus made him a senior adviser in its campaign to break Boeing’s stronghold. He left Airbus in 2009 and now consults for other aviation businesses from Tokyo.
Yamanouchi said he expects ANA will order Boeing’s 777X rather than follow JAL.
ANA could be tempted by Airbus, he said, because it faces the prospect of rival JAL flying new fuel-efficient A350s several years before ANA can get 777Xs.
But he believes ANA would face huge operational costs in adding Airbus planes, which have very different cockpits and require separate pilot and maintenance training.
In addition, he said, there is the reality of Japanese politics.
While JAL was in bankruptcy two years ago, the ruling Japanese Democratic Party gave the airline substantial financial support.
The Liberal Democratic Party that returned to power in Japan last year has shown “a tight political connection” with ANA, Yamanouchi said.
He said the government wants airlines to buy the Boeing 777X because Japanese industry will help build it.
“It is very difficult for a big business in Japan to do something that goes against the Japanese government’s desire,” Yamanouchi said. “If ANA buys the A350, the Japanese government will lose face.”
The former Boeing executive agreed, citing the “very subtle pressure at the very top levels between companies and between government and companies” in Japan.
“We certainly relied on that to influence JAL and ANA to be launch customers when we launched the 787,” he added.