For years, the Airbus A350-800 program has appeared to be stalled: Its shrinking backlog and increasingly uninterested manufacturer led many to doubt that it will ever be built. Airbus's latest position seems to be that it will produce an A350-800 eventually, much later and in a different design than initially planned.

Airbus is slowly moving away from the aircraft's current layout, considering changes to make it larger and more economical to operate. It is a “distinct possibility” that Airbus might design the smallest of the three A350 versions to be bigger than planned today, according to Chief Operating Officer for Customers John Leahy, meaning that it would “sit right on top of the [Boeing] 787-9” as a 300-seater.

If Airbus goes that route, entry into service for the -800 is expected to shift from 2016, which is still the official date, to around 2020. That would enable the manufacturer to focus development resources on the larger -1000, which it now sees as much more crucial to its widebody range than the -800. But there is an as yet unnamed caveat in the planning: Should Airbus stretch the -1000 further, as Leahy indicates it is considering, that new project likely would have priority over the lower end of the A350 family spectrum.

Airbus has been lobbying its customers for years to drop orders for the -800 in favor of commitments for the larger -900 or even the -1000. While progress has been slow and talks have dragged on, the manufacturer last month convinced the newly merged American Airlines to change an order for 18 -800s originally placed by US Airways into one for -900s. Leahy says Airbus is now “in discussions with Hawaiian [Airlines],” which has bought six of the smallest A350s and adamantly has said it does not need a larger unit. The American decision reduces the -800 backlog to 61 aircraft.

Leahy argues that the company is “production-constrained until beyond 2020,” and it wants to use the available slots for the larger versions, which generate higher revenues. However, since the last of several fundamental A350 design changes, the -800 has become a smaller version of the -900 and as such is less economical than it would be with a design optimized for its size. The aircraft also has more range than required by most of the market. Some of those disadvantages could be addressed by making the -800 a little bigger.

According to Leahy, Airbus is presenting the remaining A350-800 customers two choices: take delivery of aircraft with existing specifications, which would bind Airbus to its entry-into-service commitment for 2016, or wait “a couple of years” while a larger -800 version is developed. The 2016 target date likely is not achievable, given that little work has flowed into the project recently. And Airbus is not saying when the larger -800 would be available, either, but Leahy wants to first deliver the -1000, which is scheduled to enter service in 2017.

As currently planned, the A350-800 has space for 276 passengers in a typical three-class configuration. It is 60.5 meters (198 ft.) long and has a range of 8,250 nm. The -900 is 66 meters and seats 315 passengers. The baseline A350 has a range of 7,750 nm. Leahy makes clear that even if changes are decided, Airbus will not go for an all-new aircraft in that size category; it will still be a smaller version of the -900. Probably, the redesigned -800 would have just under 300 seats and a range below the current target but still above the -900, if no other changes are incorporated. Leahy says the number of seat rows to be added has not been determined, since talks with customers are ongoing.

The A350 concept has been through several iterations since the first plans were drawn up early in the last decade. Originally conceived as a modernized A330, the aircraft was then given an all-new metallic design that morphed into aluminum-lithium and finally into a composite fuselage. The manufacturer also moved the baseline definition to the larger -900 and delayed the -1000 by almost two years to allow for engine upgrades.

Over the years, the -800 backlog has decreased by more than half. In addition to Hawaiian, the most important remaining customers are Aircraft Purchase Fleet (with orders for 12 aircraft), Yemenia (10), Aeroflot (8) and Asiana (8).

Separately, Airbus admits there is some pressure building from the airline side to reengine the A330, following the success of the A320neo concept. “Customers are coming to us” to talk about the possibility, says CEO Fabrice Bregier. AirAsia X founder Tony Fernandes has been the most vocal supporter of such a project, although the airline just placed an order for 25 current-generation A330-300s.

“Reengining is always an option for an aircraft,” says Leahy. However, even the current version is competitive with the Boeing 787, he says. While he admits that fuel burn is 10-12% higher for the A330, the engine maintenance cost is 35% lower and capital costs are lower, too, he says. “You just have to look at the catalog prices,” Leahy adds.

The current A330 is still selling well, Airbus asserts, accumulating 77 firm orders in 2013, not counting 27 further commitments pending confirmation from Chinese airlines. With the engineering and development work needed for the A350-900 and -1000, the company does not seem near a decision. All three engine manufacturers are involved in the A330 program, but Bregier says he is not aware of any concrete talks about a possible future engine option for the aircraft.

The company has recently launched an A330 version with an increased maximum takeoff weight (242 tons) that is slated to enter service in mid-2015 with Delta Air Lines. A high-density variant for shorter sectors also is now being sold, particularly for high-volume routes in China.

Tom Williams, Airbus executive vice president for programs, says reengining is “an interesting idea, but we are in no rush to do it.” He would like to “focus on the 242-ton version first, and then we can see.” Engineering resources would not be a limiting factor, he says.

In addition to possible reengining, Airbus is studying replacing the fuselage's aluminium alloy skin with aluminum magnesium scandium, which is significantly lighter and could be used without changing production and manufacturing tools, Airbus says. It is building an A330 fuselage panel demonstrator as part of the project.

With Bradley Perrett in Sydney.