VIDEO: Airlines await Boeing response as Airbus racks up A320neo orders

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With over 330 commitments signed, pressure mounts on Boeing to decide how it should counter re-engined twinjet

As Airbus racks up orders for its A320neo, airlines face the dilemma of whether to join the queue for the higher-efficiency twinjet or gamble on waiting for a competitive response from Seattle. Boeing continues to evaluate an all-new single-aisle but has not yet ruled out a "Neo" style re-engining of its 737 family.

Customers in Europe, the Americas and Asia have rushed to sign up for the 15% lower fuel burn benefits claimed by Airbus for the re-engined A320. Over 330 commitments have been secured in the four months since its launch  and several more airlines have publicly said they are evaluating the aircraft. With sales going so well, chief salesman John Leahy is predicting that orders will have passed 500 by the Paris air show in June.

Service entry has been accelerated by six months to October 2015, and the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G geared turbofan designated as the lead engine. Unlike the rival CFM International Leap-X, the P&W engine has already been selected by several A320neo customers, and being lead engine will be available up to a year before the CFM offering.

"The evidence so far clearly shows that Airbus is doing the right thing with Neo," says Teal Group's vice-president analysis Richard Aboulafia." It's clear too that the Neo's sales success has emboldened them to accelerate the programme, likely leading to further success."

The sales success is putting pressure on Boeing to decide on its counter attack, which Leahy predicts will centre upon some colourful marketing spin about developing a clean-sheet design before it plumps for a re-engined 737.

"When one big Boeing customer decides to go with the Neo, then all this 'BS' about game-changing airplanes available in 2020 will stop, and you'll see a re-engined 737," he says.

Aboulafia believes Boeing cannot ignore the A320neo, and says that "one or two defecting customers will likely force its hand".

NEXT BREAKTHROUGH

Leahy dismisses the notion of an all-new single-aisle arriving a decade from now on the basis that any such development must wait for "the next big engine breakthrough, like the unducted fan, offering a 20-25% reduction in fuel burn" to be viable and offer the required step in operating costs over a narrowbody re-engined with advanced turbofans. "According to NASA, which is doing a lot of work on that, the next big breakthrough is coming around 2030-35, once they figure out how to tackle blade containment, noise and so on," he says.

Aboulafia says that developing an all-new single-aisle in the nearer term might be justifiable if Boeing decides to go for a larger aircraft, perhaps in the 170- to 230-seat class. However, he adds that "there's little evidence to suggest that domestic market jets are getting larger".

Leahy's latest proclamation on when an all-new single-aisle would be viable has allowed him to broaden the window of opportunity for his Neo sales force, increasing the forecast from 4,000 units over 10 years to 6,000 over 15 years and potentially taking total A320 orders to 12,000 aircraft.

Although Aboulafia views Leahy's sales estimate as an exaggeration, he says that "there's no question that the A320neo is going to have a solid 10-15 years on the market with some very impressive numbers".

Meanwhile, operators of the 4,600 existing A320 family aircraft in service may be interested to learn that Airbus could transition completely to the new model within 30 months of the A320neo's debut in 2015. Although Leahy forecasts that sales of the current CFM56/IAE V2500 powered variants could continue until around 2020-22, he says that if the market "wants to go faster...by 2018 it could be all [A320neo aircraft] if that's what customers want".