A version of this article appears in the May 5 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Should let production of the slowly die in the next few years to give more market space to the ? Or is this the right time to escalate the launch of a revamped, reengined A330neo? This conversation has been going on behind closed doors in Toulouse for a long time now, but a decision could be very close to being revealed—most probably during the Farnborough air show in July. To say the least, this decision-making process shows that market analysis and the ensuing predictions are far from being an exact science.
The A350 was developed to succeed the 246-300-seat A330. It is a so-called next-generation long-range widebody, offered in three versions to respond to customer airlines’ various capacity requirements. Its direct operating costs are lower than the A330’s because it is powered by newer engines and has a lighter airframe built in large part with composite materials. The centerline model, the 315-seat A350-900, has secured firm orders for 589 aircraft while launch customers have ordered 189 stretched-fuselage A350-1000s. In sharp contrast with this auspicious start (the first production A350 will be delivered toby the end of the year, nearly on time), the “short” 276-seat A350-800 is not faring as well in the marketplace. Moreover, in last few months several confirmed customers have switched their orders to larger versions. Today, the -800 backlog is a meager 34 aircraft and, although Airbus officially denies this, signs indicate it will be canceled.
If the -800 is abandoned, extending the A330’s production run seems like a nextlogical step. Three decades after the program’s go-ahead, the type sells significantly better than predicted by faltering market forecasts; its production rate is currently a robust 10 aircraft per month. Why? Because the A330 fills a particular market segment, addressing airlines that operate middle-haul routes and do not require a 7,750-nm range.
In a recent eleventh-hour initiative, Airbus developed a lighter, 199-metric-ton maximum-takeoff-weight version capable of transporting up to 400 passengers over 2,700 nm. It is known as the 330 Regional and is supposed to fit China’s domestic needs well, by helping to keep that country’s congested skies as clear as possible. A few weeks ago, Airbus made a pitch to officials of some Chinese carriers about buying 150-200 Regionals. The establishment of a final assembly line in Tianjin was also discussed.
In an unrelated move, an increased-weight derivative—a 242-tons maximum-takeoff-weight version—was also alluded to, with Airbus’s sales team claiming a 2% fuel-saving advantage and a 500-mi. increase in range.
This is uncharted territory. The A330—launched in the 1980s jointly with the four-engine—was expected to retire gracefully long ago. Now it looks like it could be gearing up for a new life. Since the program’s inception, 1,336 have been sold and 1,070 delivered, leaving a 266-aircraft backlog—more than two years worth of production.
The European manufacturer may well decide to reengine the aircraft and upgrade the flight system—a minimum-cost, low-risk proposition.
Recently, Steven Udvar-Hazy, the influential head of the Air Lease Corp. (and founder of the International Lease Finance Corp.) supported the envisioned A330neo concept, as did executives of CIT Aircraft Leasing. Apparently, interest at this level was enough to convince Airbus to at least reevaluate the big twinjet’s remaining potential market. Financial officers also like the idea of giving birth to a “new” commercial transport at minimum cost.
Moreover, the A330neo could confirm a trend—rejuvenating a product range by upgrading existing aircraft types beyond the status of derivatives. This is an indication that theand 737 MAX will slow the appearance of all-new aircraft and boost the manufacturer’s bottom line. The A320’s successor is no longer expected to become a reality before the end of the decade.
Airbus has more good reasons to follow this path. It expects to acquire an expanded market share with the all-cargo A330-200F, sustain the in-service aircraft’s residual value with the passenger-to-freight conversion program while more militarytransports are expected to be sold in the export market. If launched this summer, the A330neo could enter into service in the 2017-18 timeframe—and blaze a new trail in the commercial transport industry.