A concept still has to be formally presented to airlines, but a re-engined version of the A330 appears to be taking shape, with Airbus working on an aircraft it believes will match the cash operating costs of the Boeing 787-9 with the same number of seats.
Chief operating officer for customers John Leahy acknowledges that “if we were to do it”, the aircraft – dubbed the A330neo – would have around 1,000nm (1,850km) less range than its rival, but feature similar fuel burn, wider seats and – crucially, – a “substantially lower” capital cost.
“We believe that would put a big dent in 787 sales,” he said, speaking during the IATA annual meeting in Doha last week. He says the specifications would be guaranteed to carriers, and that the type would be “an unbeatable aeroplane in that category”.
The airframer has not given much detail about its internal re-engining study, but Leahy suggests an A330neo “could be very similar” to the original A350, which was dropped in favour of the A350 XWB family.
“We haven’t shown the airlines the A330neo because we haven’t launched it,” he says. Leahy dismisses any suggestion that Airbus is vulnerable in the 250-seat sector, claiming the 787-8 is “not selling well at all”.
Airbus opted for a scaled-up family in the A350 XWB, but has stopped promoting its own smallest member – the 276-seat A350-800 – in favour of converting customers to the larger -900.
Leahy is adamant that the airframer is not ditching the A350-800, however, and prefers to talk of its development being “rescheduled”.
While Rolls-Royce remains the only powerplant manufacturer for the A350, with the Trent XWB, Airbus has not confirmed whether an A330neo would have a sole-sourced engine. While an upgraded A330 would not be able to match the absolute performance of an all-new design like the A350 or 787, Airbus would address any shortfall through a competitive pricing strategy.
“If we launch it, the A330neo would have slightly less range than a 787-9, but significantly lower capital costs,” says Leahy.
Boeing, however, is confident its 787 twinjet will see off any threat. John Wojick, Boeing’s senior vice-president for global sales and marketing, does not see Airbus’s strategy working.
“Offering the most fuel-efficient operating-economics aircraft in the marketplace is what the customers are really looking for,” he says. “Offering something that’s not as efficient and not as effective, and trying to discount it on price – I don’t really think that’s what the customers are looking for. They’re looking for fuel and operating cost-efficiency, and that’s what we focused on with the 787.”
Meanwhile, Air Lease (ALC) boss Steve Udvar-Hazy is helping steer Airbus’s evaluation of its re-engining “A330neo” project with the view to being a launch customer, and predicts demand for up to 1,200 aircraft. “We’re providing input to Airbus and talking about possibly being a launch customer,” he says. Udvar-Hazy, who was also attending IATA, says ALC forecasts a market for 1,100-1,200 A330neos over the next 20 years, and that the aircraft would replace today’s A330s and A340s at lower trip costs. “We’ve done research and we see maybe 60-70 aircraft a year at the beginning, and then at the back-end of the 20-year period it probably starts tapering down,” he says.
Leahy indicates that Airbus concurs with ALC’s forecast, pegging A330neo long-term demand for at least 1,000 units.
Although the programme is still at the study stage, Udvar-Hazy says if Airbus decides to launch, the type could be available from 2018: “That’s probably what the market is signalling.”
He adds that ALC’s preference is for a choice of engine suppliers. “We don’t particularly care for [a single-source] engine solution. The A330 currently has a choice of three engines – GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce,” he says. “Our preference would be two, because it would create a larger market as a lot of airlines already have a Rolls-Royce or GE infrastructure.”
Another lessor, AerCap, says it would need more information before it would consider an order for a re-engined variant of the A330. Chief executive Aengus Kelly says that it would be “premature” for a lessor to place a launch order and then “try to tell the market what it should use”.
Additionally, AirAsia X, Air Lease Corp and CIT have all expressed an interest in an A330neo, while Delta Air Lines is rumoured to be a possible launch customer for the variant.
A Farnborough air show launch for the A330neo remains a distinct possibility.
Additional reporting by Max Kingsley-Jones and Ellis Taylor