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Aircraft Design and Production

Launching a New Model | Defining the Product | Paperless Airplane Design | Certification | Suppliers
Final Assembly | Post-Production Support

Launching a New Model

It typically takes five to seven years and several billion dollars for an aircraft manufacturer to launch a new aircraft model. An extensive amount of research precedes a launch decision, followed by years of design work, customer commitments, initial production, exhaustive testing and a certification process involving multiple government agencies. Only when all market and safety requirements are met does a new aircraft model go into full production.

Definign the Product

The process of defining a new aircraft model begins with (and ultimately rests upon) a thorough assessment of the world aircraft market. Manufacturers look for opportunities to offer their customers new products airlines would be willing to buy in sufficient numbers over a period of many years to justify the huge investment required to launch the products. Key factors for the airlines are seating and cargo capacity (payload), range, projected fuel economy and other operating costs, projected maintenance costs, new technologies and, of course, price.

In addition to their own internal research, manufacturers talk extensively to their customers about their own business objectives because a new aircraft model must meet the business objectives of enough of the world's airlines to be successful. It is not enough for a new model to be more capable than existing models (that is, able to fly higher, faster and further). It must be economically viable and attractive enough for airlines to want to buy it.

As the general design parameters of a new model come together, a manufacturer will look for one or more "launch" customers. These are airlines willing to commit to buying the new aircraft. Launch customers may be offered financial incentives for making this commitment. They also typically have an opportunity to shape the final product as the design becomes more refined. A fairly recent development in new aircraft design is a willingness by manufacturers to bring potential customers into the process at a very early stage - including flight crew and maintenance personnel - so their real-world operating experience can be factored into the design.

Since the advent of the jet age, new aircraft models typically have had a "design" life of 20 years. That does not mean aircraft are too old to fly safely after 20 years of service. It means they were designed to provide airlines with good economic value for about 20 years. Airlines can fly them safely well beyond that point - even indefinitely - if they choose to do so. It just becomes more expensive to keep them in service because of the additional maintenance and modifications required for older aircraft. In addition, manufacturers assume that over a 20 year period there will be enough technological advances that airlines will want to replace their older planes with new ones incorporating the new technologies.

Paperless Airplane Design

For decades, airplanes were designed in much the same way as a building - with draftsmen hand-drawing blueprints for every part of the structure and all internal systems. Today, aerospace engineers use computers to craft their designs - paper blueprints have become a thing of the past.

Computer-aided design (CAD) enables engineers to view their designs from all angles - even to visually "climb inside them." CAD also enables engineers to bring designs for systems and structures together on their computer screens to make sure that everything fits the way it is supposed to fit and that areas which must be serviced are accessible to airline personnel. If something does not fit, or an area is not accessible, the problem can be fixed before any aircraft are built - which in the past was when many such problems were first discovered. Aircraft then would need to be re-worked, and designs changed, often at great expense and delay. CAD gives airplane manufacturers a high degree of confidence their designs will "translate" smoothly into real aircraft on the factory floor and into revenue service.


Government agencies (the FAA in the case of the United States) have extensive certification requirements for new aircraft, all designed to ensure public safety. There are three kinds of certificates:

  • Type Certificates - Issued for aircraft "types," or models, these certify that an aircraft design meets all applicable airworthiness regulations. Government regulators must approve the design of literally every part, component and system that goes into an aircraft. In addition, all key airplane assemblies must have backups built into the aircraft so that it can still fly safely even if one structural element or system fails. Type certificates are awarded only after a new design has proven itself through an extensive program of analysis, computer simulation, and laboratory, ground and flight testing that altogether take several years to complete. The flight tests, which for a new airplane can take a little more than a year to accomplish, push the aircraft well beyond the conditions it is expected to encounter in normal flight. A new aircraft model typically goes through more than 1,700 hours of flight test and 1,200 hours of ground test before it is certified.
  • Production Certificates - A new model may not go into full production until the manufacturer satisfies government regulators that it meets government standards regarding the manufacturing process itself. Production certificates spell out all the procedures, including quality assurance inspections, that must be followed day-in and day-out by the manufacturer and its suppliers to ensure the product meets the approved design. And to ensure compliance with the production certificate, manufacturers, government inspectors, and even airline customers regularly audit the production process.
  • Airworthiness Certificates - Issued to each individual aircraft that rolls out the factory door, these certify that the aircraft itself is "airworthy," meaning it is safe to fly and ready to enter revenue service. Airworthiness certificates are issued only after an aircraft is thoroughly inspected and flight tested.
Even with the preceding certificates in place, a new model aircraft (or any aircraft, for that matter) cannot enter service unless the airline buying or leasing the aircraft holds an operating certificate. This essentially certifies that the air carrier meets all government requirements for aircraft operators - for example, that the carrier has government-approved maintenance and crew training programs in place.


Aircraft manufacturers rely on thousands of outside suppliers for many of the parts, components and systems that make up their aircraft. Typically, they utilize outside suppliers because they are specialists who can produce parts or systems more efficiently and at lower cost than the aircraft manufacturer can produce them on its own. However, suppliers must be able to meet the aircraft manufacturer's specifications for the part or system, its delivery schedule, and its quality assurance requirements. And those requirements, in turn, must match or exceed government design and quality assurance requirements.

Some key parts of an aircraft are "customer-provided," meaning the customer buys them directly from the supplier of the item who in turn provides them to the aircraft manufacturer. Aircraft seats and engines are typical customer-provided items. Because engines represent a major part of the overall cost of a new aircraft, airlines go through the same type of rigorous assessment process for engines as they do for new aircraft.

Final Assembly

The thousands of parts and systems produced by an aircraft manufacturer's suppliers, as well as those parts and systems produced by the manufacturer itself, come together in a process known as "final assembly." Final assembly factories contain a series of work stations where specific tasks are performed repeatedly. As each of these jobs is completed, the partially assembled aircraft is lifted by overhead cranes in the factory ceiling to the next station until all the work is done and the aircraft is ready to roll out the factory door and into the paint hanger.

Final assembly begins with the "build up" of aircraft wings, fuselage sections and other major structural components. These major sections are moved down the line to other stations where they are joined together. Wiring, aviation electronics (avionics), flight control systems, plumbing, lavatories, interior panels, overhead bins, carpeting, seats and thousands of other components and systems are installed inside the aircraft. Landing gear is installed underneath the fuselage, and in the finishing touch, engines are attached right before the aircraft rolls out the factory door.

All along the way, numerous inspections and tests are performed to ensure that all quality standards are met and that all systems are working properly. Once an aircraft is completed and painted, it is flight tested before delivery to the customer.

Post-Production Support

Aircraft manufacturers stand behind each of their aircraft for as long as they are in service. In addition to offering training for the operation and maintenance of the aircraft, manufacturers provide 24-hour technical support to their airline customers to help them resolve problems and keep the aircraft flying safely and productively. Hundreds of technical support representatives are stationed throughout the world, and manufacturers maintain large inventories of parts that can be rushed to carriers anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.

Most importantly, aircraft manufacturers keep careful track of the problems airlines encounter with their aircraft while in service. Manufacturers use this information, along with their own, ongoing tests of aircraft hardware and performance, to identify potential operational, maintenance or safety problems. When a problem could affect more than an individual aircraft or airline, manufacturers issue a "service bulletin" to alert owners of the affected aircraft model about the problem and the corrective steps that should be taken.

Government regulators also receive the service bulletins. If they conclude that a problem poses an unsafe condition, they will convert the service bulletin to an "airworthiness directive" (AD). These directives mandate the inspection, repair, modification or other action prescribed by the service bulletin, and at times will go beyond the service bulletin recommendations. If a government agency deems the action urgent, it will issue a "telegraphic" AD. If not urgent, it will give carriers a predetermined amount of time to complete the action so airlines can fit the work into routine maintenance checks.

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