Damage limitation

This article first appeared as a Comment in the 10 June issue of Flight International

It is keeping its cards to its chest, but indications are that some time this year – perhaps as early as ­Farnborough – Airbus will begin offering a re-engined version of its A330. But no one in Toulouse is pretending that a warmed-up variant of its popular small narrowbody is anything but a spoiling tactic.
With the strong-selling current A330 starting to run out of steam, and the order tally for the A350-800 in freefall, Airbus has to do something to counter the smaller Boeing 787 variants. Airbus’s chief operating officer customers John Leahy believes an A330neo could punch a hole in Dreamliner sales, sold at a ­substantial discount over its rival.
In many ways, launching an A330neo is an admission of defeat for Leahy, who has contrasted his ­employer’s simple widebody strategy – based on the three variants of the A350 and the A380 – against his rival’s “dog’s breakfast” of offerings from the 787-8 to the 777X and 747-8I. At the time, Leahy was not even including the A330 in Airbus’s future product range.
But that does not mean it is a bad decision. Airbus is making the best of a situation of its own making. Opting to scrap the original A350 for the larger XWB made sense, but by focusing resources on the -1000, Airbus failed to concentrate on the smallest variant, leaving the -800 as a sub-optimal shrink of the baseline -900.
First to market Boeing has already made a major land grab with its smallest 787s. Airbus risks ceding that segment to Seattle for the next decade and a half unless it designs a clean-sheet entry-level widebody, or goes back to the drawing board with the A350-800.
It also makes sense because keeping the A330’s ­airframe means little expense for Airbus, with the risk pushed to the engine manufacturer – or manufacturers – tasked with delivering the necessary efficiencies.
Who will provide the power remains unclear. Steve Udvar-Hazy is the A330neo’s biggest fan – his prediction of up to 1,200 aircraft sales over 20 years exceeds even Leahy’s. However, that upbeat forecast is based on the leasing guru’s preference for a choice of engines.
Will GE and Rolls-Royce judge that even a 1,200-strong market, split two ways, makes investing in a variant of one of their existing products worthwhile? Sole-sourcing would suit the winner better than potential customers, who might lose negotiating ­muscle and complicate their aftermarket arrangements.
However, the smart money has to be on a single ­engine supplier A330neo launch at Farnborough.

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