Variations enigma

This first appeared as a Flight International Comment in our 29 October issue

Double-stretching an airframe might be something of a mug’s game, according to Airbus’s John Leahy, but that hasn’t stopped the whispering campaign centred on an imaginary aircraft unofficially labelled, at least by outsiders, as the A350-1100.
Airbus already exudes confidence that its ­A350-1000 will demolish the citadel from which, for two decades, the Boeing 777-300ER has reigned over the big-twin sector, and insisted that its US rival is being forced to revamp and stretch the 777 in response.
Whether the eventual emergence of the 777-9X will demand another incremental counterattack ultimately depends on the size of the market as much as the degree of slack in the A350-1000’s design – from which Airbus might squeeze additional capability – without straying into the same minefield that it claims will complicate the -9X’s development.
Airbus has been hiking the baseline configuration of its A380 to highlight the per-seat economics and keep the large twins from carving into its niche.
But this leaves a 200-seat gap between the A350-1000 and the A380, and Airbus is forecasting that 30% of twin-aisle sales over the next 20 years will be in the 350- to 400-seat category.
The question is whether Airbus is prepared to cede the upper end of that range to the 777-9X – particularly if the end result is that A380 sales could suffer either way. Airbus has developed the A350 family with the aim of taking on five Boeings, across two lines, with just three aircraft. This is an ambitious strategy which depends heavily on finding the best airframe size to serve as the anchor, and which still potentially leaves Airbus vulnerable at the extremes – both upper and lower – of its family range.
If Airbus believes there is evidence of a broad shift in aircraft size, and that the optimum point in the crucial mid-size twin-aisle sector is moving upwards to 300 seats, then this strengthens the possibility of an echo at the higher end of the seat spectrum.
Airbus has so far been adamant that development of the 777X is evidence of Boeing’s concerns over the A350-1000’s encroachment on the 777-300ER’s ­monopoly. Although its language regarding a possible further stretch of the A350 has softened slightly, Airbus will want to avoid any indication of doubt about the -1000’s competitive position. Given that the 777X has yet to be formally launched, Toulouse still has time to decide whether it wants to play.

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