Late last month, before a much-needed vacation, I posted a hastily drafted comment praising Airbus for its fuel-efficient jet design. The Seattle Times ran the piece as an op-ed called “Airbus wears the ‘green’ hat.”

Not surprisingly, it brought two dozen angry rebuttals from around the Northwest, many of them from Boeing engineers.

Along with the predictable rounds of name calling, the email barrage contained contradictions to my essential argument. I’ve now checked those core claims and must admit that I made an appalling mistake. I want to apologize, because I pride myself on (usually) getting the facts right.

  • I’m especially sorry that, in my hurry to leave for vacation, I agreed to let the Times publish the article before I had done my usual diligence. A blog is by its nature a rough-draft. It emphasizes freshness over fact checking and moves toward truth partly through iteration and reader feedback. Sightline’s other publications, including newspaper columns, are held to a much higher standard of accuracy. Letting the unchecked Airbus post go to print in a major daily paper violated my principles and was sloppy. I never should have let it happen.

    What specifically did I get wrong? Relying on outdated information, I assumed that the A380 was substantially more fuel efficient than the 7E7. When I last studied the matter in earnest (which I now realize was a long time ago), big planes had a huge fuel-per-passenger advantage over smaller planes. The difference was more than enough to compensate for the extra fuel required to fly people to regional hubs on small planes in order to load them onto big planes for the longest legs of their trips. I foolishly assumed the situation was unchanged.

    Neither the A380 nor the 7E7 is built yet, but in half a day’s worth of surfing and reading, I found no one who seriously contests Boeing’s assertion that the 7E7 will be more fuel efficient. It might be by a nose (as Airbus seems to say) or it might be by a length (as Boeing says), but either way, it’ll almost certainly use less energy to move each passenger between two points. Thanks to advanced composite materials, the 7E7 will be the lightest commercial airliner in the sky, and it will be powered by the most efficient engines by far. These innovations more than compensate for the economies of scale the A380 achieves.

    The 7E7 advantage expands when you factor in fuel for the extra flights required to fill up each A380. Smaller jets will have to shuttle passengers to hubs to feed passengers to the giant planes.

    So let me set the record straight: Boeing, not Airbus, wears the green hat. And I wear the dunce cap.