FARNBOROUGH: Airbus faces up to its widebody conundrums

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The rivalry in the widebody sector is intense not because Airbus and Boeing have directly competing products, but because they do not. Each has a different vision for the long-haul market, and the Farnborough air show will see them continue their tussle over which is right.

It is a campaign that is as much about disparaging the shortcomings in their rival’s line-up as promoting the benefits of their own product philosophy.

At Farnborough Airbus will show off its latest widebody, the A350 XWB – the -900 variant of which is due to enter service with Qatar Airways in the fourth quarter. Airbus insists its 21stcentury products – three versions of its latest-generation twinjet, plus its A380 – cover all the sweet spots in the market from 275 to 600 seats. Chief operating officer, customers John Leahy famously dismissed the alternative from Seattle – three variants of the 787, two each of the 777 and the larger 777X, and the 747-8 – as a “dog’s breakfast”.

But if the US airframer’s widebody offering is a morning meal with too much choice, some might argue Toulouse’s simplepetit dejeuneris missing key dishes. At the top end, its A380 is struggling to widen its appeal beyond a small number of carriers, including Emirates. The 777-300ER has remained the widebody of choice for the longest-haul, heaviest routes. At the bottom, airlines appear unconvinced by the A350-800, and Airbus faces having to decide whether to address that segment by extending the life of its two-decade-old A330 with a re-engined version.

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Toulouse is keen to emphasise to potential customers that the A350 programme is making untroubled progress

Airbus

Meanwhile, in the crucial 300- to 400-seat, big-twin sector, Airbus also faces headaches. The Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-powered A350-900 and soon-to-follow -1000 are its great hopes. However, Emirates’ June cancellation of its order for 50 A350-900s and 20 A350-1000s was a huge blow for the programme, especially as the Dubai carrier was one of four blue-chip airlines which put their faith in the new 777X by placing over 300 combined commitments at last November’s Dubai air show.

The cancellation left Airbus with orders for 742 A350s ahead of the air show – still a respectable tally. The airframer is keen to impress on potential customers that the programme is making untroubled progress, and that the Farnborough appearance of the fourth flight test aircraft – in a special hybrid livery based on the colour scheme of Qatar Airways – will help spur that backlog to grow rather than erode any further. A collapse in confidence in the A350, following Emirates’ move, would be Airbus’s worst nightmare.

Airbus believes it holds several aces, however, including the more than 50% carbonfibre A350’s weight advantage over the 777, and its 18in standard economy seats – subject of a major advertising campaign by Toulouse. The A350-1000, claims Airbus, is 35t lighter than the 777-9X. “You need 20 seats more in a 777-9X to break even on the weight difference,” says Kiran Rao, executive vice-president for strategy and marketing. “That means you need to fill these extra seats.”

Airbus also has the advantage of timing. While the 787-8 and -9 were first to market in the sub-300-seat segment, Toulouse hopes it can win over existing or potential 777-300ER customers with the A350-1000 – due to enter service in 2017. Rao concedes that the -300ER has been a huge success in the market – partly because its economics were so strong against the A340 quadjet – but teases that “the darling of the airline industry has come to an end and the -1000 has stepped in”. He adds: “If the 777-300ER is so great, why did [Boeing] launch the -9X?”

Seating is the other area where Airbus believes it has the upper hand. The airframer is pushing for an 18in economy seat to become the “industry standard”. In reality it hopes for anything but, because it believes the wider seats on its nine-abreast A350 give it an advantage over the 787, which has the same number of seats in a row but at 17in, while some 777 operators have 10-abreast layouts. The A330 has just eight-abreast seating as standard. Airbus contends that Boeing customers are effectively having to compromise on seat width to match the operating economics of Airbus aircraft.

It is not an entirely convincing argument, however. While the difference between 17in and 18in might be important in certain markets such as North America, where passengers’ average weight and size is increasing, that extra inch may not be as vital in parts of Asia, for instance, where the average body size is much smaller. Malaysia-based AirAsia X, for instance, has abandoned 18in seats for nine-abreast layouts in its A330s. Boeing and others add that it is for airlines – not the airframer – to decide cabin configurations.

One of Airbus’s big decisions is whether to launch a re-engined version of its A330. The small widebody twin has been performing better than expected in recent years – partly thanks to 787 delays – and in the run-up to Farnborough Airbus still had 254 orders. While Airbus hopes to convert to the -900 some of the airlines that have been abandoning the A350-800 – orders for the smallest variant of the family stood at just 34 before the show – many believe a re-engined A330 would be a better option for customers in the market for medium-haul, 250- to 300-seat airliners.

Airbus, however, is being coy about a possible Farnborough launch. In mid-June, officials in Toulouse said they did not want to “rush into a decision”. Having said that, the airframer confirms it is looking seriously at the option and that developing a re-powered A330 would be “relatively straightforward”, as the engine supplier – or suppliers, as there are three rival engines on the current A330 – would take on the heavy-lifting of delivering expected fuel savings of up to 15%.

As evidence that the project is more than sketches on a napkin, Tom Williams, executive vice-president programmes, speaking at a media event in Toulouse on 11 June, described some of the structural changes which would be made if Airbus updated the A330. These would include a reinforced – but not an entirely redesigned – wing, a strengthened pylon and a new nacelle. In addition, it would seem unlikely that the airframer would pass up the opportunity to tweak the cabin and cockpit using features from the A350.

Just who would deliver propulsion is another question. Rolls-Royce has been making much noise about its Trent-based Advanced widebody engine concept, which it says could be on the market by the end of the decade. A further iteration – known as Ultra – is in the pipeline for a potential 2025 entry into service. A version of Pratt & Whitney’s PW1000 geared turbofan could be another possibility.

Airbus, for its part, is giving little away about negotiations. “There are a lot of decisions that have to be made before we get to an engine manufacturer decision,” says Williams.

Airbus claims to have been pleasantly surprised about the staying power of the A330, taking 700 orders since the launch of the A350. “All our predictions were wrong,” says Rao, who adds that the current aircraft “still has a strong economic proposition”. Airbus is upbeat about prospects for a short-range, 400-passenger, high-density version of the A330 – dubbed the A330 Regional – in the Chinese domestic market, where it says the type can replace two 200-seat narrowbodies on popular routes between congested airports.

There are other arguments in favour of sticking with the current model. Although the running costs of the older-generation A330 are higher than the all-composite 787, the fact that the capital costs of the programme have long been amortised means Airbus can now afford to continue discounting its small widebody against its newer competitor. A Neo would push the list price up considerably, and might end up cannibalising sales of the older A330. For the sake of a few more sales, Airbus might end up in a worse position than it is now.

However, pressure from the industry continues for a medium-haul workhorse in the size gap between the A320neo the A350-900. Leasing guru Steve Udvar-Hazy believes Airbus will abandon the A350-800 for a re-engined A330. “There are airlines receptive to an A330neo that aren’t going to order the -800,” he said earlier this year. Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia thinks launching an A330neo would have another benefit for Airbus – it would put paid to hopes of Boeing reviving the near-dormant 767-300ER as a contender on routes of up to 5,000nm (9,260km).

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The -900 variant of the A350 XWB is due to enter service with Qatar Airways later this year

Airbus

With the market “clearly not accepting” of the A350-800, Airbus cannot ignore such a glaring hole in its widebody range, argues Rob Morris, head of consultancy at Flightglobal’s Ascend advisory service.

“This is where the A330 conundrum lies. To Neo or not to Neo? While the A330-300 is a very efficient aircraft today, it will inevitably lose market share in the face of improved seat mile economics of the 787-8. So the option of doing nothing appears not to exist for Airbus. I am sure we will see their response very soon,” he says.

That answer, however, might be a “short- or medium-term fix only”, adds Morris. “Longer term, perhaps the best response may be an all-new family twin-aisle covering the space from 200 to 300 seats. But that depends of course upon where the next generation single-aisle families are pitched, because inevitably they will start to intrude into this space.”

Would Airbus be prepared to sacrifice part of the market in the hope that it can come back with a better, clean-sheet offering than its rival next decade?

As Airbus mulls an A330neo for the medium term, the more immediate priority for its engineers is preparing the in-flight A350-900 for certification in the third quarter, and building the first -1000. Subassemblies for the variant begin production later this year.

On 20 June, Airbus flew its fifth and final development A350 – the second equipped with a passenger cabin, and tasked with route proving and ETOPS validation. MSN5 is also fitted with the first “production-representative” Trent XWBs.

Didier Evrard, executive vice-president for the A350 programme, said in mid-June he foresees “no real difficulty” for the developmental aircraft to achieve the flying hours needed for certification, noting that after the A380’s 30-month marathon, taking the A350 from first flight to certification in 15 months is “significantly shorter than previous programmes”. The programme had accumulated over 2,000h from 500 flights ahead of Farnborough, with the aircraft flying around 80h a month. In mid-June MSN3 crossed another hurdle – hot-weather testing in the United Arab Emirates.

With the first customer aircraft – MSN6 and MSN7 – for Qatar Airways due for delivery by year-end, Airbus’s other focus is on production. By June, the final assembly line was building MSN10, with output at two aircraft a month. Subassembly centres, including the Broughton, UK wing plant and facilities at St Nazaire and Hamburg, were working on MSN17 and MSN18. The rate will rise to “close to three” by early next year and five by the end of 2015, with the first -1000 variant entering the line around MSN60, Evrard says. By 2017, Airbus intends to be producing 10 A350s a month.

Evrard acknowledges the ramp-up will put pressure on the supply chain, both at Airbus’s own factories – including Stade in Germany, which makes the vertical fin, Illescas in Spain, where the tail cone is built, and the structures plant at Nantes in France – as well as those of first-tier suppliers. Former Boeing unit Spirit AeroSystems makes the centre fuselage, and had been a concern to Airbus in the early stages of the programme. However, Evrard says Spirit has achieved “much better control” of quality and supply, and he is confident it will meet the ramp-up demand.

Plans for the A350-1000 are progressing apace, with the first carbonfibre lay-up in Nantes – and the first metal cut – due to take place around the time of the Farnborough air show. Some of the tooling will be dedicated to the -1000, while other assemblies will use -900 tools. Evrard expects the -1000 flight test campaign to start in 2016, and take “a little bit less” than 12 months – iron bird, wing-bend and ground-vibration tests carried out for the -900 flight test programme will not be repeated. Dedicated flight testing with the higher-thrust Trent XWB-97 engine will begin next summer.

Plans for the 276-seat A350-800 – a shrink of the baseline -900 – remain uncertain. American Airlines, Libyan Airlines and lessor ILFC are among the latest to switch commitments for the smaller variant to the -900, with Hawaiian Airlines one of the few continuing to reiterate its faith in the -800. The -800 was originally slated for service entry in 2016, but this now looks unlikely, with Airbus saying little about the programme schedule and admitting it is not putting resources into marketing into the smallest variant. “We are putting our maximum effort into the biggest A350s,” Evrard says.

Ascend’s Morris sums up Airbus’s widebody challenge. “At face value, Boeing does appear to have a more holistic twin-aisle product line than Airbus,” he says. “The three-family approach has allowed it to optimise products in the small and intermediate sectors, while maintaining a marginal competitive presence at the large end.

“While Airbus’s prophecies of a significant very-large aircraft demand appear to be slow to materialise, the 787 and 777 families do seem to be addressing the sweeter spots in the twin-aisle market.”

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