Although Airbus remains publicly ambivalent about its willingness to develop a reengined A330, a growing sector of the market is voicing support for the move.

Leading U.S. lessor CIT Aerospace is among the latest to throw its weight behind the gathering group of operators and other potential customers that would like to see the Airbus big twin get a new lease on life. Speaking at the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (Istat) Americas 2014 conference here March 18, CIT Transportation and International Finance President Jeff Knittel says the A330 “is at a crossroads, and we think Airbus needs to make some decisions.”

Airbus remains unmoved by the clamor, at least on the surface. Commenting on the speculation over prospects for a new engine option (neo) variant, Airbus Senior Vice President for Leasing Markets Andrew Shankland says, “There's a lot of discussion on the A330neo, but not in Toulouse.” Airbus delivered more A330s last year than in any single year since it entered service in the 1990s, he notes, and the advent of the planned high-gross-weight and regional variants indicates that the existing version has adequate margin for additional flexibility. Airbus sees “the A330 going on with new developments for a long, long time,” Shankland acknowledges. “We are always analyzing everything including reengining—but you shouldn't take that as a sign we plan to do that.”

CIT is one of the largest customers for the A330, with 41 either in service or on order, and it was the launch customer for the heavier 242-metric-ton variant that will be introduced in 2015. “We are still very bullish about the prospects for that,” says Knittel, adding that the introduction of a neo variant will not necessarily impact the near- or mid-term market for the current versions or the heavier and soon-to-be-developed regional versions. “Just because one iteration of an aircraft comes out does not mean the end of the world for the rest,” he says.

CIT sees the A330neo as a fundamentally viable prospect because it fits into a niche that enables profitability in the 250-300-seat market on shorter ranges where the longer-range optimized A350 and Boeing 787 families might be penalized. “The A350-800 is not as efficient as they'd like, so they need to do something,” says Steve Mason, CIT vice president for aircraft analysis. “The obvious one is to reengine the A330, and, from an Airbus perspective, it may be the biggest bang for the buck.”

Mason also says the reengined A330 and A350 markets are not necessarily the same: “We see them as segments that don't overlap too much. The important thing is that Airbus act quickly.” Failure to move swiftly and make a launch decision within the next six months or so could cause Airbus to miss the launch window. “That would damage the business case,” Mason says.

Airlines including AirAsia and Delta Air Lines have already expressed strong support for the proposed reengining, and Delta also has revealed that it intends to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for new aircraft within the next two weeks. “There is a huge need for a small widebody,” Delta CEO Richard Anderson tells Aviation Week. “We really need Airbus to step up and reengine.”

Delta is specifically pushing the case for a new 275-seat aircraft that would have be optimized for a range of 5,000-5,500 nm or less. Delta's RFP, which covers around 50 new widebodies as part of a broad replacement strategy for Boeing 767-300ERs and 747-400s, will include evaluation of the A350-900 and -1000, all three 787 models, current A330 versions as well as the A330neo.

Not all lessors are in agreement over the case for the A330neo, however. Steven Udvar-Hazy, chairman and CEO of Air Lease Corp., appears highly skeptical. “We don't believe it is rational for us to take the A350-800 and the A330neo. Airbus has not made that decision at a senior level and, if they do, I believe the focus going forward will be on the A350-900 and further enhancements to the A350-1000,” he says. In the mid-2000s, as head of International Lease Finance Corp., Udvar-Hazy was influential in forcing Airbus to redesign the A350 with a wider fuselage. “I don't see the A350-800 surviving if they do the A330neo,” he adds.

CIT, on the other hand, appears convinced that Airbus will go forward with a revamp of the A330. “Our view is that Airbus will probably do something like reengining, which will entail strengthening the wing and the landing gear,” Mason says. The result would be a “very capable aircraft” that could enter service as early as 2017 or 2018 should Airbus decide to launch this year, he adds.

An early launch decision is essential if Airbus is to take maximum marketing advantage of the gambit in terms of timing and capital advantage, says Knittel. However, the overall plan is “not as easy as some people may suggest,” he concedes.

Part of the answer will hinge on whether Airbus is tempted to invoke wholesale A330 systems and interior changes if it opts to reengine or will instead stick to the minimal change model adopted for the A320neo, which is focused mostly on engine and related wing-structure changes.

“The beauty of both the [Boeing 737] MAX and [A320]neo has been the ability of Airbus and Boeing to avoid scope creep,” says Knittel. “I was not a firm believer in the manufacturer's ability to say 'no'—engineers are not accountants. So both Airbus and Boeing have to be commended for showing a great deal of discipline in changing the fewest things. If you're going to address capital cost, you can't have dramatic changes in the aircraft. That model certainly worked with the A320neo.”

Reengining would involve unavoidably significant structural changes to the A330 wing, Mason says. A sole-source choice of either a General Electric GEnx-1 or Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 TEN derivative is most likely, CIT says, but both new engines will be heavier than the current propulsion systems. Mounting different engines on the same wing is not new to Airbus, though.

As it studies the reengining option, Mason says Airbus will “get more confidence” from its A320neo design experience as well as the modifications to the common A330/A340 wing that enabled it to accommodate the much larger Rolls-Royce Trent 500 for the A340-500/600 in place of the CFM56-5 on the original A340-200/300.