Airbus has been lukewarm about reengining the A330 along the lines of the A320neo, even though many industry pundits believe such a step has merit. Now some high-level sources are saying the decision to proceed could be imminent.

With a total of 1,313 firm orders until the end of 2013, the A330 is by far the most successful widebody Airbus has built. That figure compares to 816 for the A300/A310 family, 812 for the A350, 377 for the A340 and 304 units for the A380. And even after Boeing launched the competing 787, the A330 continues to have remarkable market success: Airbus sold 534 A330s during the past five years; most were the larger A330-300.

There are two main factors behind why the murmuring about new engines for the A330 continues, in spite of Airbus’s best efforts. The first is that AirAsia X has been very vocal about the change up. The airline represents a new business model, similar to Jetstar’s introducing the low-fare concept (or an adapted version of it) to medium- and long-haul flying. Of course, the carrier has just ordered 25 more of the current A330s, which indicates its allegiance to that type too.

The second factor is the wider acceptance of installing a new engine underneath the wing of long-proven aircraft. Airlines and other industry-related entities are comfortable with the idea. The A320neo has been a resounding success; 2,600 have been ordered since it was launched. The Boeing 737 MAX is not quite there yet in terms of massive numbers of orders, but it too looks like a winner. And the concept has now been transferred to smaller jets on Embraer’s E2s, the next generation of the 175/190/195-family. And long-haul aircraft seem to be following suit; Boeing’s recently launched 777X will have new powerplants.

In fact, Emirates President Tim Clark has been lobbying for the reengining of the A380, saying: “It does not make sense” to have all other widebodies benefit from new engine technology, but not the A380.

The A380 actually is not the only aircraft stalled at that uneasy deciding point—the A330 (and the 767) are other current widebodies that can be seen as using what is quickly becoming outdated engine technology. Most operators will categorize the A380 as an extremely well-done, efficient machine that has one key disadvantage: fuel burn. With competing aircraft becoming more efficient, this is a big caveat.

Airlines are already coming to Airbus, as CEO Fabrice Bregier confirms, to escalate the reengining process. Even Airbus chief operating officer for customers, John Leahy, admits that the A330 has an average 10-12% fuel-burn disadvantage over the 787, but he notes that it benefits from lower capital expenditure required—it is simply cheaper to buy. Therefore, Leahy argues, the aircraft is very competitive. In a recent interview he said: “The current A330 is selling very well. The market understands that we are investing in this product family by both extending the range but also developing a regional version. Its economics are unbeatable today, so it is not obvious that we should propose a reengine.”

However, a senior executive at a large A330 operator offers another view: He sees the current A330 as “a very good base,” but says that a new engine would lead to a 7-8% fuel burn improvement if one factors in higher engine weight. That aircraft would have the potential to exceed 787-9 economics, he argues. It would also raise the question of why Airbus would still want to build the A350-800 in whatever shape or form.

This executive points out that Airbus could sell the aircraft as a low-risk proposal because much of it—even the engines—are well down the industrial learning curve. It would also likely appeal to a broader market by embracing smaller operators that do not require the longer-range capabilities of a smaller A350 derivative. Airbus no longer seems to be fundamentally opposed to the A330 reengining idea, but executive vice president of programs, Tom Williams, says he would like to see the latest 242-ton version in service before making that decision. The first aircraft is scheduled to be delivered to Delta Air Lines in mid-2015.

While the current backlog of 267 aircraft is not yet reason for concern, Airbus is producing the A330 at a high rate (10 per month). At the current rate, this would in theory extend production into 2016. Over the past two years, the manufacturer has delivered more aircraft than it has sold. And while it took in 99 new orders in 2011, the number dropped to 77 last year. It is probably too soon to label this a negative trend, but it would be only natural that the imminent introduction of the stretched 787-9 would affect new A330 orders.

Airbus has stated it wants to keep the A330 line open until well beyond 2020, but one must ask, with which A330? More specifically: with which engine?

Although neither General Electric nor Rolls-Royce will discuss the status of A330neo studies, industry sources say both engine makers are now in advanced discussions with Airbus, which is expected to make at least an informal “go, no-go” decision as early as March, with a formal launch conceivable in 2015.

Unlike the A320neo initiative, which was put in play in late 2010 and involved the launch and development of all-new engines, the potential development timescale for the “A330neo” is considerably shorter because suitable next-generation engines are already developed and in service on the competing Boeing 787. Pratt & Whitney, which offers PW4168/PW4170 versions of the PW4000 family as engine options on the A330, is not expected to submit a proposal. Although Pratt has outlined eventual plans for larger versions of the PW1000G geared turbofan that are in development for a range of single-aisle aircraft, notably the A320neo, the relatively short-term timescale of the aircraft, added to the engine maker’s already heavy development commitment, effectively rules them out of the race.

Industry sources report that both Rolls-Royce and General Electric are seeking exclusivity on the potential new A330 versions in an attempt to avoid a split in a program that is not certain to run as long as the original variant.

Rolls, which holds the lion’s share of the existing A330 market with its Trent 700, is believed to be discussing a new derivative based on the Trent 1000 TEN (thrust, efficiency and new technology) variant now in development for the

787-10. Although aimed at the slightly higher 76,000-lb.-thrust bracket for the double-stretched 787 version, the TEN will be certificated across a broad power range for application in de-rated form for lower-weight 787-8 and -9 applications, as well as an optional 78,000-lb. version for potential growth needs. Ground tests of the first Trent 1000 TEN will start this year, with flight tests set for 2015 and entry-into-service scheduled for sometime before mid-2016.

GE, which in contrast to Rolls has the bulk of the 787 market with its GEnx-1B, is discussing a version of the latest PIP II (performance improvement package) standard with Airbus. The latest upgrade, which increased flow and offered an improved low-pressure system, was certified on the 787 last December and has entered service. While the U.S. engine maker has no official plans to further upgrade the GEnx beyond the latest standards, it is expected to study longer-term life-extension or PIP options based on some technology items emerging from the GE9X program for the 777X. GE currently offers the CF6-80E1 on the A330 rated at 67,500-72,000-lb. thrust.

One key complication faced by both GE and Rolls is that while the 787 engines are suitably powerful for the A330, each lacks conventional bleed air power offtakes. The 787 was the first commercial airliner to replace standard pneumatic systems with electric power, and as a result both the GEnx-1B and Trent 1000 are configured with electric start systems that act as power generators when they are up and running. To adapt to the A330, which has conventional pneumatically powered systems, both engines would require significant modifications. GE is likely to take advantage of the design of the 66,500-lb.-thrust GEnx-2B, which is configured with a bleed air system for the 747-8. Rolls could look to adapt bleed systems from either the Trent 900 used on the A380 or the XWB in flight test on the A350-900. The Trent 1000 TEN also will use a new high-pressure compressor design based on that used in the XWB engine, making it the first version of the 787 engine to directly use specific technology proven earlier on an Airbus application.