The transition from the current Airbus A330 to the A330neo was never going to be easy. But that it has become as difficult as it is now has a lot to do with one market that Airbus thought would be ideal for both aircraft: China.

In late 2013, Airbus launched the A330 Regional. Certifying the A330 with a low maximum weight to save a little on operational costs was supposed to add to its attraction. Airbus hoped the regional variant would help secure a Chinese order for up to 200 A330s, which would have helped considerably with keeping the A330 line at or close to its current production rate for about two more years. As an added incentive, Airbus was prepared to open an A330 completion center in China to fit  interiors to otherwise complete aircraft flown in from Toulouse.

But the chances of Airbus actually setting it up in the short term look increasingly dim. An industry official familiar with the thinking of Chinese airline representatives and those in charge of state-controlled orders says the carriers are now quite unlikely to place a large order for A330s. They are instead looking more at the A350 and Boeing 777-300ER and 787. 

For Chinese airlines, the A330-300 has been notably useful over the past decade in supplementing narrowbody aircraft on crowded domestic airways, but growth in the country’s economy, and thus domestic passenger traffic, has slowed markedly.

The air force, meanwhile, continues to allow incremental capacity growth on commercial air routes. To the extent that more A330-300s will be needed, they may become available as larger aircraft, such as 777-300ERs, take over Asian regional services.

For Airbus, further orders are crucial for the A330 ahead of the transition to the A330neo. Last year, the company cut monthly production to nine from 10 aircraft and was forced to reduce it to six, effective in early 2016. However, the first A330neo will only be delivered in late 2017. The current A330 backlog stands at 317 aircraft but that includes 145 NEOs, leaving only 172 for the current variant. Not all of those will be delivered before the end of 2017.

But to bring Chinese customers back on board for the A330, any industrial agreement would have to be broadened to include the -800neo and -900neo versions. The situation is further complicated by an internal Airbus study under the project name “Icon,” which is essentially about developing an upgraded cabin for the aircraft. The extent of the upgrade is not clear and several suppliers, including those from China, have expressed an interest in the work. If a deal with China comes through, this almost certainly would lead to a resumption of talks about a completion center. However, according to industry sources, Airbus is uncertain when the changed cabin should be introduced.