A number of airlines worldwide have been urging manufacturers to come up with a large-capacity, short-haul aircraft they could use on trunk routes. Now, Airbus is officially going ahead with the regional version of its A330.

Airbus has been offering the A330 to customers since the time of the Paris air show in June, but had not formally committed to the program. Now it is waiting for orders. The aircraft is mainly geared toward the Asian market and, to a significant extent, toward Chinese domestic routes. That submarket is going to be the largest single traffic segment worldwide by 2032, according to the latest edition of the Airbus's Global Market Forecast (GMF), which the manufacturer released last week.

Timed with the GMF, the new version of the A330 was consequently announced at the Aviation Expo China in Beijing.

“The A330 regional version is what the market would need,” Airbus China President Eric Chen says. He sees the type operating on 2-5-hr. legs within China and on routes as far south as Singapore, connecting the major airports in the region. “Look at the air traffic control situation and imagine how to double the traffic.”

Designing a large-capacity aircraft that fits between the traditional widebody segment and the Airbus A320/Boeing 737 category has been a challenge for many years. The original A300 was specified for such missions in the 1970s, but finding a suitable replacement has been a difficult for both manufacturers. Boeing initially intended to launch a regional version of the 787, the 787-3, but ultimately dropped the idea in the midst of the 787 production chaos.

On the other hand, the new A330 version is also a reaction to the launch of the 787-10, which, too, has been geared toward the Asian market. Timing is on Airbus's side because the A330 will be available more that two years ahead of Boeing's -10.

The 767-400 is only operated within the U.S. and on some international routes from the U.S., but has not garnered any interest from Asia.

Airbus also had shied away from making large investments in a segment that has been so difficult to tackle because the number of trunk routes is—at least at this time—limited. So far, the manufacturer has not come up with a technically efficient solution, but it is offering airlines a large-capacity variant of the A321 that holds up to 240 seats, and now the A330-300 version has seating options for around 400.

The new shorter-range version for the A330-300 entails cabin rearrangements for more seats, de-rated engines and lower gross weight certification, but no physical changes to the powerplant or airframe.

At all offered weights, the A330 will also receive some cockpit technology from the A350 and A380, including dual head-up displays and new navigation systems.

Returning to its roots as a medium-range aircraft, the lightweight A330-300 will be more competitive than the A350 and 787 on sectors of only moderate length, such as 2,000 nm (3,700 km), says Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier, who also emphasizes the A330's narrowbody-like dispatch reliability of 99.4%.

With seating of “around 400 passengers” and the lower maintenance costs in a lighter operation, per-seat costs will fall by 15%, according to the manufacturer. Seating is increased in part by eliminating galley space that is not needed on short flights.

The customer can choose its gross weight, from “a little under 200 tons to 206 or 207 tons,” says Bregier. The company cited two examples: 199 metric tons (439,000 lb.), offering a range of 2,650 nm, and 205 tons for 3,000 nm. Since the structure and engines are not changed, operators can restore their lightweight A330-300s to a higher gross weight. The maximum currently available is 242 tons, offering a maximum range of 6,100 nm.

For the lightweight A330-300 option, the prime market—although not the only one—is China, where this size aircraft could help relieve severe shortages of air traffic capacity and pilots. “This is what is requested by the Chinese authorities and Chinese airlines,” Bregier says. For several years, the country's busiest air route, the 670 nm between Beijing and Shanghai, has been operated mainly by A330s capable of flying about eight times as far.

Airbus expects several orders within 6-12 months. The first delivery should be in late 2015 or early 2016, according to Chen. “The price will be very consistent with the rest of the family” of A330 versions, says Bregier.

There are currently 122 A330s in service in China and this is projected to increase to 190 by the end of 2015. The recently launched longest-range 242-ton version of the A330-300 is due to enter service toward the middle of 2015; the A330-200 is slated to follow a year later.

Airbus is also offering a new shorter-range version of the A350. But the this type has not yet gained traction in China, mainly because aircraft purchasing there is still largely done as part of the traditional five-year planning. The next available A350 slots will not be open until after the end of the next planning period. There are no orders for the A350 yet from mainland China carriers. However, Hong Kong Airlines has an order for 15 A350-900s, and Cathay Pacific holds a large commitment for -900s and -1000s. China Airlines has also ordered -900s.