It may be playing catch up with Boeing on widebodies, but in the single-aisle market Airbus has a clear head-start on its rival. While Seattle dithered about its narrowbody strategy at the turn of the decade, Airbus committed in 2010 to re-powering its existing A320 family with a choice of two engines. The Pratt & Whitney PW1100G-powered version of the 150-seat A320neo – due to fly for the first time in September – will be handed over to launch customer Qatar Airways in the final quarter of 2015, almost two years ahead of the 737 Max.
Airbus’s speed off the mark has been rewarded in terms of sales. The Neo has just under a third more orders than the Max – 2,695 to 2,097 at the end of June, according to the Ascend Fleets database – although Seattle would claim that its current “NG” 737 is still outselling the A320ceo (current engine option). On the Neo, PW1100G orders are slightly outstripping those for the competitor CFM Leap-1A, with around a third of customers yet to commit to an engine supplier.
At a press briefing in Toulouse in June, Airbus was keen to stress the Neo programme is on track, with test-instrumentation power-on, load calibration and the podding of the P&W engines on the first flight-test example taking place – the engine has been flying on P&W’s testbed aircraft since May last year. Painting and ground-vibration testing were due to follow in July, with the twinjet to be handed over to the flight-test team at the end of August.
First flight of a Leap-1A-powered A320, on aircraft MSN6419, will take place in the second quarter of next year, with entry into service in mid-2016. The first of the derivative models, the A321neo, is scheduled to enter service in the final quarter of 2016, with the smaller A319neo doing the same in quarter two of the following year. Both debutants will be powered by the PW1100G. As with the A320neo, the Leap-1A versions of the two derivative variants will follow “a few months” later.
As a derivative aircraft, the certification process will be more straightforward than it was for the A380 and the A350 – which will be finishing its flight testing just as the first A320neo takes to the air. Both of these were completely new airframes. Airbus believes having gone through the certification effort with these aircraft will bring benefits to the A320neo process. Klaus Roewe, senior vice-president for the A320neo family, says “more than 2,000 lessons from the A380 and the A350 have been incorporated into the design and test programme of the Neo”.
However, speaking at the event in June, A320neo flight-test engineer Sandra Bour-Schaeffer admitted the campaign still faces challenges. For a start, the certification regime has changed substantially since the A320 was certificated. Secondly, Airbus wants to achieve the same take-off and landing performance as the A320, despite the new version being 1.6t heavier. And while the A350 has a fleet of five test aircraft, there will be just four A320neos in the flight test programme, two for each engine option.
Apart from the four A320neo test aircraft, there will be two each for the A319neo and A321neo
One aircraft in each pair will have heavy instrumentation and conduct hot-and-high performance tests. The second will be lighter and will be used for testing autopilot, noise and extended operations. This version will be “more representative to customers” with “no intrusive instruments”, says Bour-Schaeffer. In addition to the four A320neo evaluation models, there will be two test aircraft for each of the derivative airframes, the A319neo and A321neo, one for each engine.
One potential concern for Airbus has been the uncontained failure in the PW1500G engine that grounded the Bombardier CSeries test fleet in Mirabel, near Montreal, in late May. The issue was still unresolved as this article was published. However, Airbus says the mishap will not affect the A320 as its PW1100G sister geared turbofan is “different”. Roewe says Airbus is in “intense discussions” with Pratt & Whitney as a result of what happened in Canada but does not “see any risk to first flight from the CSeries incident”.
As well as the new engines, one of the other fuel-saving features on the A320neo family are sharklet wingtips, which will be fitted as standard. Airbus has been installing the 2.4m (7.9ft)-tall aerodynamic enhancements as an option on new-build A319s and A320s from the end of 2012. It says the devices, which replace the traditional triangular-shaped winglets that have equipped A320 family aircraft since the 1980s, reduce fuel consumption by up to 4% and can extend range by 100nm (185km) or increase payload by 450kg (990lb).
The airframer completed its “sharklet development programme” for retrofitting A320 family aircraft at the end of last year and has secured commitments to retrofit the devices – a process that takes around 13 days and is carried out at approved maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities – from 19 customers on around 200 narrowbodies. It envisages a further market for 4,000 of the 5,700 or so in-service A320 family aircraft.
Ramping up A320 output to meet a swelling backlog for the Neo is now one of Airbus’s chief priorities. It is currently producing its narrowbody range at a rate of 42 aircraft a month at its final assembly lines at Toulouse, Hamburg and Tianjin in China and in February took the decision to increase the rate to 46 every month from the second quarter of 2016 just as Neo production is to begin in earnest. Airbus has even suggested raising this to an unprecedented rate of 50 later in the decade.
To help with the production increase, Airbus will open a fourth final assembly line, in Mobile, Alabama, in the “late first half” of next year. The move is highly significant as it gives the European manufacturer its first industrial presence in a market where it has faced considerable political resistance from a pro-Boeing political lobby, characterised by the action taken by the US government through the World Trade Organisation against alleged illegal EU subsidies. Its sister company – Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) – manufactures in Mississippi.
Construction of the plant is ongoing and the first US staff are being trained in Europe. Mobile is scheduled to deliver its first aircraft – an A320 for JetBlue Airways – in early 2016. Within the first year, production will be four a month – initially current-generation A319s, A320s and A321s, but shifting to the Neo by the end of that year – with Airbus suggesting that the rate could rise to eight by the turn of the decade.
With the threat from new competitors – Bombardier with the CSeries, Russia’s Irkut with the MC-21 and the Chinese – looking like an irritant at worst to the big two, the decision by Airbus and Boeing to re-engine their venerable narrowbody ranges, rather than invest in all-new airframes, looks like a sensible one. With both the Neo and Max selling so well, any decision on what to do next has been pushed into the next decade. However, as 2020 approaches, all the talk will be on which will blink first and commit to an all-new narrowbody.
Much will depend on available engine technology and advances in composite construction. Neither Airbus nor Boeing are likely to embark on a new programme unless they can guarantee at least double-digit advances in fuel economy over the Neo or Max. A lot hangs too on customers’ expectations in the short-haul market, which have changed greatly since the A320 family was launched 30 years ago.
The A320 is a four-member family, but the smallest A318 barely sold. The A319’s share of orders has also been falling sharply with Airbus expecting the A321 to make up half its future single-aisle production. The largest variant made up 21% of orders and 18% of deliveries across the family last year, but Kiran Rao, executive vice-president for strategy and marketing, says the A321 is “gaining in momentum”. Airbus figures to the end of May show the A321’s backlog of 867 aircraft is more than five times the 156 for the A319.
The airframer is working on plans to increase the A321neo’s potential capacity from a maximum 220 seats to 240 by offering a reconfigured cabin and door arrangement from 2017 deliveries. The modification, called Cabin-Flex, involves removing Door 2 and installing an extra overwing exit to overcome safety restrictions on the number of passengers permitted to be carried.
It is also intending to increase the seat count on the A320 from 180 to 189 seats, a move designed to appeal to the low-cost sector. The modification will be done by widening escape slides and rearranging the cabin layout, without any changes to the airframe. Crucially, the change will match the narrowbody's one-class seating capacity with the 737-800 and its Max successor.
Such moves put increasing clear blue water between the strategies of Airbus and Boeing and the new clutch of aspirants in the short-haul market, which are focusing on the 70- to 130-seat segments. It also helps bridge the gap somewhat for Airbus between its single-aisle and small widebody offerings – in terms of capacity at least, if not range. Toulouse’s big challenge, however, remains how to address the space above the A321 – 240 to 310 seats and mid-haul – both in the next five years and in the next decade, when clean-sheet designs will be back in contention.
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