Airbus has doubled-down on its controversial commitment to the A350-800, saying the smallest variant of the A350XWB family can survive even while its predecessor remains competitive with the Boeing 787.
"Do we want to keep the A350-800 in the family? We absolutely do," says John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer for customers, says at the International Society of Transport Aircraft Traders (ISTAT).
Not everyone in the industry shares Leahy's opinion. Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al-Baker has publicly doubted the airframer's commitment, suggesting Airbus really wants to cancel the A350-800 variant and replace it with the 242t A330. Qatar converted orders for 40 A350-800s to -900s as a result.
But Leahy says such ideas about Airbus's motives are unfounded.
"What we are doing is ramping up," he explains. "And, if you're ramping up a programme and you're supply-constrained, what would you do? Well, you do what I am doing. I am sending sales teams out right now and saying part of your job for this year is take any A350-800 that you can find and persuade the customer to go to a -900 or a -1000 because I only have x-number of slots per year coming down the line."
Meanwhile, the A330 was supposed to be replaced by the A350 family, but instead Airbus is upgrading it to 242t to extend its range in a bid to match the reach of the 787.
That upgrade can continue to compete on equal terms against the 787 even without an engine upgrade, Leahy says.
Leahy assigns the 787 a 12% fuel burn advantage over the A330, but the latter is cheaper to lease by $350,000 to $450,000. That results in a roughly equivalent seat-mile cost between the two aircraft, he says.
"Plug the numbers into your own spreadsheet. Don't take my word for it. You'll come up with a wash on the seat mile cost of the aircraft," he says. "That's why we're selling the airplane."
As a result, Airbus has no interest in re-engining programme popularly nicknamed the "A330neo", despite repeated calls by airline officials, including AirAsia chief executive Tony Fernandes, to launch such a programme.
"I'm taking advantage of a lower capital cost and I want to preserve that," Leahy says.
To help make his case, Leahy cited the theoretical example of Boeing trying to compete in the passenger market with the A380 by re-engining the 747-8 with two GE9X-sized turbofans instead of four smaller engines.
"If you go put a couple of billion into making a twin-engine version of the 747-8 and you put new engines on it, all of a sudden you've got to amortise that and now you're getting closer to the other guy and you're still burning a little bit more fuel," he says. "So it's probably better to stay exactly where we are, do the mission very economically and be able to show that the capital cost is low enough in comparison that you can actually make the numbers."