Airbus is quietly moving away from the current design of the Airbus A350-800 and is considering changes that would make the aircraft larger and likely more economical to operate. It is a “distinct possibility” that Airbus might make the smallest of the three A350 versions larger than planned today, according to Chief Operating Officer Customers John Leahy.

Airbus has been lobbying its customers for years to drop orders for the -800 in favour of commitments for the larger -900 or even the -1000. While progress has been slow and talks have been dragging on for a long time, the manufacturer last month convinced the newly merged American Airlines to change an order for 18 -800s originally placed by US Airways into -900s. Leahy says that Airbus is now “in discussions with Hawaiian”, which has bought six of the smallest A350s and has so far been adamant that it has no requirement for a larger unit. The American decision reduces the -800 backlog to 61 aircraft.

Many in the industry have doubted that Airbus will ever build the -800. If the plans are firmed up, the aircraft maker will not build the currently conceived version, but a yet-to-be fully defined aircraft.

Leahy argues that “we are production constrained until beyond 2020” and Airbus wants to use the available slots for the larger versions, which are generating higher revenues. However, since the last of several fundamental design changes in the A350 program, the -800 has become a shrunk version of the -900, which is making it less economic than it would be if it was optimised for the size. The aircraft also has more range than required by most of the market. Some of that disadvantage could be addressed by shrinking the -800 less.

According to Leahy, Airbus is presenting the remaining customers for the type two choices: either the existing aircraft is delivered if airlines are insisting on the specification, or a larger -800 version is developed and that would mean a delay of “a couple of years.”

Airbus is not saying when the current aircraft would be available, but Leahy wants to deliver the -1000 before the -800. The -1000 is to enter service in 2017.

The aircraft, as currently planned, has space for 276 passengers in typical three class seating. It is 60.54 meters long and has a range of 8,250 nm. By comparison, the A350-900 is 6.3 meters longer and seats 315 passengers. The baseline A350 has a range of 7,750 nm, according to Airbus. Leahy makes clear that even if changes are decided Airbus will not go for an all-new design of the -800 and that it will still be a shrunk version of the -900.

The redesigned -800 would likely move close to just under 300 seats while its range would be below the current target, but still above the -900, if no other changes are incorporated.

Leahy says that since talks with customers are ongoing it has not yet been decided how many rows of seats would be added.

The A350 concept has undergone several iterations since the first plans in the early part of the last decade. Originally conceived as a modernized A330, Airbus later opted for an all new metallic design which morphed into aluminum-lithium and finally into a composite fuselage. The manufacturer also changed the baseline definition to the larger -900 and delayed the -1000 by almost two years to allow for engine upgrades to be developed.

Over the years, the -800 backlog has reduced by more than half. In addition to Hawaiian, Aircraft Purchase Fleet (12), Asiana (8), Yemenia (10) and Aeroflot (8) are the most important remaining customers.