ALC Order Bolsters Airbus Production Plans, A350F Introduction

Credit: Airbus

DUBAI—Airbus is receiving more signals from the market that its production plans are realistic after it received another big aircraft order at Dubai Airshow, this time from Air Lease Corporation (ALC).

ALC signed a letter of intent for a total of 109 aircraft, including the first commitment for the freighter version of the Airbus A350. The deal comprises 23 A220-300s, 55 A321neos, 20 A321XLRs, four A330-900s and seven A350Fs. The agreement “is another sign that the end of the COVID-19 crisis wants to install itself upon us,” Airbus Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer said Nov. 15.

ALC’s outstanding orderbook now comprises 70 A220-300s, five A320neos, 192 A321neos (all versions), 17 A330-900s, eight A350-900s, eight A350-1000s and seven A350F. Deliveries from the commitment announced here in Dubai will largely take place in the second half of the decade, giving the lessor a headstart to meet market demand in a few years’ time.

In spite of the ALC agreement, Scherer said that Airbus will “take a more sober approach to the leasing market in the future.” In his view Airbus has been a little too exposed to lessors in the past. “We have been a little top-heavy on lessors,” he said. But as Airbus is now turning to take a more conservative approach, “the first movers have an advantage.”

ALC Executice Chairman Steve Udvar-Hazy said the additional A220 order was based mainly on strong demand in Europe. The four additional A330neos have already been placed with customers, signaling what ALC CEO John Plueger describes as an “uptick in the widebody market.”

The lessor has so far not had freighters in its portfolio, but Hazy said demand for the A350F was so strong among its customers that he felt ALC should expand into the field. The A350F will be based on the A350-1000 and has a slightly shorter fuselage—minus five frames. It will have a 109-ton maximum payload and a range of 4,700 nm. In an express-freight configuration, Airbus says it will be capable of flying 95 tons over 6,000 nm. 

The ALC order comes in behind a commitment for 255 aircraft made by Indigo Partners on Nov. 14 for its affiliated airlines Frontier, JetSmart, Volaris and Wizz Air—remarkably all ULCCs. The announcements also follow a period in which some have accused Airbus of behind-the-scenes conversations that have sought to force customers to take delivery of aircraft now that they do not actually want. They have even talked about a new “arrogance” that Airbus allegedly is showing in its relationships with customers.

Scherer categorically rejects the notion. “The claim that we are arrogant bothers me,” he told ShowNews. “There is no arrogance in the Airbus culture at all.” He said that “we don’t have to force deliveries right now. If anything, we are hearing frustration about not being able to deliver enough in the short and medium term.” He also made clear that “we are not on a market-share rampage. We don’t think that way.”

With Airbus now already in a comfortable leadership position in the single-aisle market, driving Boeing too low might also force a reaction that Airbus does not want: the launch of a new Boeing aircraft.

However, Scherer does not believe that Boeing will go ahead and launch a new conventional aircraft that would compete in the large narrowbody segment ahead of the arrival of new technology engines around 2035. “I don’t think they will [launch]. I can’t rationalize it. A side of me wants Boeing to make that mistake. But the aerospace industry guy in me thinks that we need to get on the critical path to decarbonize aviation,” Scherer said. And while there was “a lot of potential in improving the existing product line of Airbus and Boeing”, he does not believe the 757 replacement as envisioned now would represent a next-generation move.

In the more immediate production ramp-up to 65 single-aisles per month by the middle of 2023, Airbus will be able to rely less and less on Chinese airlines. Their backlog from previous orders is diminishing and no new orders are being placed. “I’m worried about the decision dynamics in China, not the fundamentals,” Scherer said. The decisions are “so intertwined with politics that it becomes very difficult to manage.” He added that “political agendas ignore commercial realities.”

Airbus had hoped for China to place another large order in 2021, but this has now become all but impossible. Scherer said he hopes China will place orders for both narrowbodies and widebodies in 2022. The lack of clarity is putting Airbus in a difficult position with regards to planning. “We are trying to anticipate the needs of China to some extent but the pressure on production slots is becoming very strong,” he said. At some point, those will have to be allocated to airlines from other regions that are more advanced in their decisions.

Jens Flottau

Based in Frankfurt, Germany, Jens is executive editor and leads Aviation Week Network’s global team of journalists covering commercial aviation.