In the latest phase of the strategic chess game that the Airbus and Boeing rivalry has been in the past quarter century, all eyes are fixed on the European manufacturer to see how it will respond to Boeing's latest long-range project.

The emergence of the new Boeing twinjet-derivative family—launched at the Dubai Airshow in November on the back of orders and commitments for 259 aircraft worth $95 billion—presents Airbus with serious challenges. Not only does the smaller 777-8X variant directly compete with the 350-seat A350-1000, but the larger 777-9X opens up new territory in the potentially highly lucrative 400-plus-seat range below the A380 market for which Airbus has no current offering.

But could all that be about to change? The Hamburg-based Airbus Future Project Office along with the Universities of Aachen and Hamburg and Germany's aerospace research center DLR participated in a series of studies into large product development. It was partially funded by Airbus and through the federal aviation research program Luftfahrtforschungsprogramm (Lufo).

The initial trade studies focused on an extremely large twinjet aimed intriguingly at the 470-seat sector now served only by the 747-8. The work pre-dates the official launch of the 777X, as it was concluded in 2012, but sources familiar with the manufacturer's product development work say the New Long Range (NLR) project is attracting growing interest again as Airbus seeks a response to the 777X.

The NLR has the potential to open up a new large-capacity market in the 747 sector with the lower operating costs offered by a large twin. It would conceivably augment the slower-selling and more expensive A380 and, at the same time, be the basis for a product family including a smaller derivative that could also compete directly with the 777-9X, possibly with additional range and capacity.

However, any new product development initiative within Airbus faces extremely high hurdles. CEO Fabrice Bregier has sent a clear message to management that “we need to focus on incremental improvement of our products,” rather than going for all-new concepts.

Airbus states that it is “not planning to launch a new aircraft program for the next 10 years and the company focus is on incremental innovation, which means continuing to keep our current programs at the cutting-edge of technology in order to continue to deliver value to our customers. In parallel, we continuously carry out product development studies and perform research that covers all market segments, which can include long-term new aircraft concepts and shorter-term enhancements to current products. Examples of this include the regional and 242-tonne versions of the A330.”

How long can Airbus stick to that position, however? The proposed aircraft would effectively bridge the yawning market gap between the A350-1000 and the A380, which Boeing has exploited with the 777-300ER and 747-8 and will effectively dominate with the 777X from 2020. Such a strategy would not surprise Teal Group's vice president of analysis, Richard Aboulafia. “It's clear they need to do something in that segment,” he says. “A further stretch beyond the A350-1000, even if technically feasible, wouldn't come close to the 777-9X in capabilities, and the A380 remains a niche machine, for Emirates. By aiming one notch above the 777-9X, they'd seize the high ground in terms of twinjet capabilities, and the past 30 years clearly tells us that's an enviable spot.”

One senior aerospace executive with detailed knowledge of the study says he is convinced that “Airbus will eventually conclude they need a new aircraft family.” He also says such a decision will mean the proposed A350 stretch beyond the -1000 will never be built. He argues it would be too close to the NLR in size and views it as being too complex an engineering task, given the likely performance requirements. An NLR project would also likely end any A380 reengining effort, which is seen internally as extremely challenging in terms of engine/wing integration and aerodynamics.

Aboulafia says a new large Airbus twin could be launched in 2018, “after spending ramps down on the A350XWB series and the A320neo, and arrive as early as 2023.” But he adds that “if Airbus instead diverts engineering and financial resources to develop a futile A380 upgrade, or if it keeps losing money on each A380 it sells, then Boeing will enjoy a long and profitable exclusive franchise in the large twin market.”

However, one participant in the initial research effort says the new large twin is unlikely to be available much before 2030 because of the amount of technology maturation needed.

Details revealed with the NLR indicate potential focus areas for the European manufacturer as it evaluates its product development priorities. Like Boeing, which must soon decide on whether to focus first on a 757 replacement or revive the New Small Airplane (NSA) studies that were shelved with the launch of the 737 MAX, Airbus faces a number of future development options as it continues to look at longer-term plans for an all-new aircraft to succeed the A320neo, the potential A380 reengining and an even bigger A350. As far as narrowbodies are concerned, Bregier said earlier this month,“I don't see why anybody would launch a successor [to the 737 or A320] before 2025.”

Details of the NLR emerged at the recent American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Science and Technology Forum (AIAA SciTech) in Maryland, where Airbus and researchers from Aachen University described a project to apply a conceptual design for a hybrid laminar flow control (HLFC) to the Airbus mega-twin.

Provisional specifications for the NLR include a range of 8,150 nm, three-class seating for 470 and a design cruise speed of Mach 0.85. The configuration is conventional and includes a large high-aspect-ratio wing with an area of 565 sq. meters (6,081 sq. ft.) and span of 80 meters (262 ft.). This compares with the 747-8's 554-sq.-meter area and 69.7-meter wingspan, and the A380's 9.8-meter area and 845-sq.-meter wingspan. Externally resembling the overall planform of the A350, the only major distinguishing feature of the NLR is a horizontal stabilizer with a proportionately shorter span—which traces back to the evolution from the A330 to the A350. In the cabin, economy seating would be in a 10-abreast layout like the 777's.

Incorporating a large amount of lightweight composite structure, and utilizing advanced wing design and high lift technology, the study has restricted maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) to just under 892,900 lb., while operating empty weight is targeted at around 467,400 lb. Boeing is aiming for an MTOW of 775,000 lb. for the 777X.

It is unclear how much of this performance would hinge on the availability of advanced technologies such as HLFC, higher levels of engine-airframe integration and others, many of which are in the early stages of development. Advanced airframe, systems and propulsion work in these areas is planned under the Airbus-led Large Passenger Aircraft (LPA) project as part of Europe's Clean Sky 2, but the technical maturity goals will lag those required by near- to mid-term concepts by several years.

Under the current Clean Sky 1 effort, flight tests of natural laminar-flow wing sections are planned on a modified A340-300 in 2015. Under the yet-to-be-funded Clean Sky 2, work will expand to HLFC, where suction or blowing is used to maintain smooth drag-reducing airflow. Plans include flight tests of a large HLFC test specimen and high-speed demonstration of an HLFC wing. Boeing, in the meantime, has developed a passive form of HLFC requiring no active suction device, which will be introduced into operation on the empennage of the 787-9 from mid-2014.

With Jens Flottau in Frankfurt.