Airbus has ended the conceptual design phase for the Airbus A320NEO and the A319NEO, freezing the basic definition of the aircraft. “We have confirmation of performance, all suppliers are engaged and the financial and market assumptions have been confirmed, too,” says Klaus Roewe, senior VP for the A320NEO family.

“We will start to cut metal in the very near term.”

Airbus launched the NEO program in December 2010 and has since received 1,425 firm orders. The first A320NEO with Pratt & Whitney’s PW1100G-JM engines is planned to be delivered in the fourth quarter of 2015 followed by the CFM Leap-1A version in the second quarter of 2016.

“The program is on track, but the schedule is tight,” Roewe says.

Airbus says the aircraft will be “good enough for the next decade” as the availability of new technologies to warrant a clean-sheet design is not expected until at least 2015. “We will make further investments only when the technology is mature,” Roewe notes, adding, “An all-new aircraft will have to be at least 15% better to justify a $15 billion investment. It will be quite a while.”

The manufacturer sees demand for up to 12,000 aircraft in the NEO category until 2030 that is not covered by the existing backlog of orders. Airbus says the NEO will achieve a 15% fuel burn advantage over the current A320 variants.

The NEO family will have sharklets as a standard feature; the devices are to be introduced on the classic A320s by the end of this year. Airbus expects the wing tips devices to reduce fuel burn by 3% on typical missions.

Airbus currently has 1,200 people working on the NEO program and Roewe estimates that around 5,000 are assigned to the NEO when suppliers are included. The peak of the engineering effort will be reached in 2013, before Airbus can “start to ramp down resources on the engineering side.”

The A321NEO still is in the concept phase, because it has some components that are unique to it and that “still need some extra work,” says Roewe.

Roewe says Airbus will be paying a lot of attention to quality and maturity introducing management tools, such as advanced quality product planning, a concept taken from the automotive industry. Risk assessment and failure mode analysis also will play an important role in the preparation and ramp-up of final assembly.

A maturity officer will be part of the chief engineer’s office.

Pylon parts will be the first NEO components to be built. Also the PW1100G-JM engine is to perform its first ground run later this month and it is expected to fly on a testbed by the end of this year, Roewe says.

To limit risks, Airbus plans to produce parts, components and subsections at a fast rate even before the first delivery, although it will only have a single-digit number of production aircraft ready before entry-into-service of the first unit, which is scheduled to enter Qatar Airways’ fleet.

The flight test program for the A320NEO will be performed by four aircraft, two each with the different engine types. The A319NEO and the A321NEO flight tests will be undertaken with only two aircraft each.

The flight test aircraft are to be followed by a number of “pre-series” jets that will be identical to the real production aircraft. Airbus plans a linear ramp-up of production to a rate of 44 aircraft a month in 2018. According to Roewe, output of the current A320 family versions is being reduced as the NEO rate increases.

Overall narrowbody production is to stay more or less stable, meaning production of the current version A320s will end in 2018.

Airbus currently builds 40 narrowbodies a month and plans to increase output to 42 by October. The manufacturer has considered increasing this production rate further, but has recently decided not to go forward with that plan.

Roewe says the NEO initially will only be produced in Europe, but final assembly could also move “elsewhere” at a later stage. Airbus currently has an A320 final assembly line in Tianjin, China, but the contract with the Chinese partner companies expires in 2016, just as the NEO arrives. Negotiations are ongoing to extend the line and if that is happening “the NEO would automatically come into the play,” Airbus China President Laurence Barron said earlier this month.

Airbus also is expected to eventually build the NEO at the new Mobile, Ala., A320-family final assembly line that was announced just days before the opening of the Farnborough air show.