has been quick to dismiss the merits of 's new 787-10 since its launch at the Paris air show in June, a sure sign that the European airframer considers the new aircraft a serious competitor. Another sure sign is this: Airbus plans to launch a new version to go head to head with the -10.
Although Airbus has been talking with individual airlines about what it is calling the A350-900 regional, and it says some have firmed up commitments already, it plans to formally offer the aircraft toward the end of this year. “[The airlines] have kept it quiet for awhile because they want to see how exactly we position it,” Airbus Chief Operating Officer-Customers John Leahy says. The -900 regional is going to be structurally identical to the baseline aircraft, but its engines will be derated to 75,000 lb. thrust, the same as those powering the smaller -800. The regional variant will also be limited to a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 250 tons, compared to 268 tons for the long-haul version.
Airbus is not saying when the aircraft will be ready for entry into service, but some certification work will be necessary. The baseline A350-900 has 92 flight-test hours behind it, following its June 14 first flight; it is to enter service in the second half of 2014.
Leahy himself has not kept quiet about the regional version's virtues, and he is hitting back hard at the 787-10. Given the 787 fleet grounding and recent incidents, he describes the competitor as “not reliable.” He argues that “what they have got is an architecture that is not mature and that eventually will become mature.” Boeing may have to redesign aircraft systems, he believes. “It is going to take a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of canceled flights,” he says.
The move to proceed with the A350-900 regional is not only significant as a reaction to the 787-10. It shows that Airbus is starting to pay more attention to customers that have quietly or publicly been complaining about what they describe as excessive range capabilities built into new long-haul aircraft, which are essentially only needed by the big three Persian Gulf carriers for services to the U.S. West Coast, Australia or Latin America. Such ranges are not needed by European, U.S. and even many Asian airlines.
The A350-900 regional can still easily fly most transatlantic missions and all medium- to long-haul services that would be typical of longer intra-Asian routes. It is also suited for Middle East-Europe and Middle East-Southeast Asia flights. And Airbus is not limiting its new focus on medium-haul widebodies to the A350. It also plans to offer a version of thewith a lower MTOW, primarily for intra-Asian routes, in an effort to make the aircraft as broadly usable as possible; it is developing another version with a 242-ton MTOW, making the aircraft a true long-haul jet.
Airbus and Boeing are both offering two aircraft families for the bulk of the long-haul market, the A330 and the A350 as well as the 777 and the 787. One interesting aspect of the competition is that Airbus is building an all-new aircraft for the larger-capacity segment of that market, while Boeing has decided to initially focus its innovation on the smaller-capacity end of it.
But the new initiatives—the 787-10, the A350-900 regional and even the A330-300 regional—are all targeted at around the 300-seat segment, the main difference being in weight and range.
Airbus says the A350-900 regional “proves to be a very strong competitor to the newly launched 787-10,” arguing that it offers the same payload/range characteristics and “comparable economics.” In other words, it is acknowledging that the A350-900 does not. However, Airbus asserts that the regional variant is actually a more pleasant aircraft than the 787-10 from a passenger perspective. In a nine-abreast configuration, the A350-900 can accommodate seats that are 18 in. wide, while the 787's are just 17 in. wide.
Furthermore, the 787-10 will operate at its maximum thrust level, according to Airbus, whereas the -900 regional will not, leading to reduced maintenance costs.
The variant can be reinstated to full range capability through changes in software and some paperwork (plus a fee to Airbus, as the lighter aircraft has a lower price). That could be an important asset for leasing companies, because it broadens the base of potential customers. It would also offer airlines the flexibility to switch from regional to long-haul flying as their networks evolve.
Few details are known about the A330 regional variant. “We are looking at coming out with a lower-takeoff-weight-version of the aircraft,” Leahy says. It will also feature lower engine thrust and “slightly improved aerodynamics,” and will be optimized “to fly four to six hours around the region.”
Ironically, that takes the A330 back to its roots. “The A330 started out as a regional aircraft, but we have grown it to do New York to Tokyo,” Leahy says, noting that it retains the capability for shorter-haul flying, too. The current average A330 sector length is 1,800 nm, but the aircraft is also used for the 74-nm flight from Doha, Qatar, to Bahrain and for the 5,400-nm sector from Honolulu to Seoul.
While some long-haul carriers such as, and operate the A330-300 with fewer than 250 seats, some newer customers employ much higher-density configurations for shorter ranges. Sichuan Airlines and Cebu Pacific, for example, fly the -300 with more than 430 seats. Only , Air Caraibes, Iberworld and Air Asia X have neared that capacity for the aircraft previously.
The longest-range 242-ton version of the A330-300 is due to enter service toward the middle of 2015, with the A330-200 following a year later. Airbus is not specifying when the lower-weight, lower-thrust and shorter-range variant could enter service. That aircraft's MTOW is believed to be limited to about 206 tons.