For an aircraft originally dismissed by Airbus as having no business case, the A220 has defied sceptics not only by settling snugly into the airframer’s line-up but also by emerging as a potential successor to the ubiquitous A320.
Such has been the ascent of the former Bombardier CSeries in the five years since Airbus swept in to rescue the new Canadian programme and put its marketing power behind the twinjet.
This was the same aircraft, of course, that Airbus’s then-sales chief John Leahy had argued would be rendered superfluous by re-engined models, particularly the A319neo. The updated single-aisles, he said, made “much harder” the Canadians’ task of selling their “nice little airplane”.
If Leahy’s opinion was caustic, any hostility from Airbus evaporated when it negotiated the programme’s acquisition and took over the CSeries in July 2018, rebranding the two-member family as the A220-100 and -300.
“[Airbus] already knew the product extremely well before,” says Rob Dewar, colloquially known as the ‘father’ of the aircraft. “They knew exactly what they were getting. The feedback we had before the acquisition was, ‘If we had to develop an airplane, we’d have done exactly the same’.”
Dewar led the CSeries programme at Bombardier and, since the acquisition, has become Airbus Canada’s senior vice-president for A220 customer satisfaction, customer services and product policy.
“We were very challenged [at Bombardier] on financial and human resources,” he says. “As soon as Airbus acquired the [CSeries it] brought to the programme, and the aircraft, what was really missing.
“Airbus came with the capability to invest further in the programme and develop it, and leverage all the technology, engineering might, and the rest of the power of Airbus to continue to develop the programme – and support it – to make it the success it is today.”
He says there was a “lot of debate” about the A220’s fit in the single-aisle line, notably the overlap between the -300 and the A319neo, and states: “We said, in the end, let the market decide their choice.”
That preference has proven unambiguous. By the end of June this year the A220 had landed 806 orders – double the total prior to the takeover – while the A319neo has yet to break into treble figures.
Dewar says the A220 is proving a “natural fit” and “logical evolution” as the A320neo family’s centre of interest shifts upwards to the A321neo and its long-range variants.
Absorption of the A220 brought not only a new aircraft but a review of the organisation.
“We’re kind of a pilot project – guinea pigs, if you like – on new ways of working,” says Dewar. “The A220 was a leaner organisation. We came from a company that was very entrepreneurial. We kind of had that culture.
“Airbus comes with much more capability, with much more rigorous processes and, of course, infrastructure in place. So we’re working really to keep the flexibility, lean and more reactive, but leveraging the resources and infrastructure and processes of Airbus.”
But the acquisition has also enabled Airbus to scrutinise the aircraft, and determine the extent to which it might benefit from early enhancements. Speaking during an investor forum on 21 June, chief commercial officer Christian Scherer said the airframer had “Airbusified” the jet.
Dewar says the aerodynamics, software and cabin have all been subject to analysis and brought into line with Airbus’s standards. “We took the first two years to remodel the aircraft in Airbus tools,” he says. “And of course, the results came out to be very similar [to Bombardier’s]. But really that was necessary for any future development.”
Probably the most significant improvement under Airbus’s watch has been the performance from take-off and landing weight changes. The A220-300 underwent an initial 2.3t hike in maximum take-off weight (MTOW), and a further 1t has since been achieved, bringing the current MTOW to 70.9t. The -100 has similarly had its MTOW raised to 63.7t.
This has taken the range of the -300 and -100 respectively to 3,400nm (6,290km) and 3,450nm. Airbus has also tweaked the maximum zero-fuel weights (58t and 52.6t) and landing weights (61t and 54.7t) of each variant.
Dewar says the changes align the A220 with the range of the larger Airbus single-aisle jets. “That’s been tremendously popular with customers,” he says. “The testament to that was during the pandemic, where the A220 was the most-flown active fleet compared with any other type. That’s a great test.
“The market was reduced significantly, so [airlines] were able to put the A220 onto… longer routes that would normally be done by A320s or A321s or other competing aircraft. We could do it with lower capacity and much lower cost.”
Airbus also secured Canadian extended operations (ETOPS) approval for the A220 giving the option for 180min diversion time and allowing carriers to take greater advantage of the range capability.
Dewar insists Airbus has not objected to any specific architecture – “They haven’t come and said ‘we don’t like this’,” he says – and the aircraft has not been reshaped. Airbus modelling, he adds, has enabled the airframer to “take advantage of the current product, with no changes, and have better performance”, using the hidden capability that Bombardier had yet to extract from the CSeries.
“If you demonstrate, through modelling and testing, a certain capability of the aircraft, you can take the benefit of it,” he says. “The [CSeries] at the time – basically, we’d just certified it, and it was only in service for a couple of years. Certification is a very rigorous process and takes quite a bit of effort and time.
“So when Airbus came along, we looked at their capabilities, their experience, and what they’d certified on other products. And we found some areas that we’d actually done a little better, based on our previous experience, and in other areas we found Airbus had done better. So we were able to harvest both of those.”
Airbus has complemented the refined aircraft performance with interior updates, newly applying its Airspace cabin philosophy to the A220 with the planned introduction of lightweight, high-capacity luggage bins from 2025. A retrofit option will also be available.
The change will trim about 135kg from the cabin structure, while offering space for 19 more standard bags. Dewar says the update will give the “look and feel” of an Airbus cabin.
“On the A220 we did have very large bins already but we weren’t able to turn all of the bags sideways,” he says. “Typically there were four bags in a bin, and you could turn three sideways and one flat. Now we can put all the bags in sideways.”
Airbus is redesigning the passenger service unit, as part of the update, and installing ceiling changes and new lighting options.
The airframer aims to offer its new flexible satellite-connectivity scheme, Airspace Link HBCplus, for the A220, permitting airlines to select service providers through a new terminal and radome.
This follows previous introduction of in-flight entertainment and connectivity capabilities from Intelsat and Panasonic. As part of the A220 cabin enhancement, seat options were also broadened to cover products from Safran, Collins and Recaro.
Maximum certified passenger accommodation for the A220-100 is 127 passengers, and 145 for the standard A220-300. But replacing the single-lane off-wing escape slide with a dual-lane slide clears the -300 to carry up to 149 seats. Air France has a 148-seat interior while Air Baltic has been reconfiguring its fleet with both 148- and 149-seat layouts.
Dewar says a proposed 160-seat high-density cabin remains an option, achieved with a second overwing exit as well as larger slides. “It would be available depending on customer demand,” he says.
Refinements to the aircraft since it became part of the Airbus portfolio have been based on modelling and validation, without structural reinforcement. The A220 has evolved with avionics software updates, such as those for ICAO’s Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System standard, as well as upgrades to the Pratt & Whitney PW1500G full-authority digital engine control.
Dewar suggests another hike in maximum take-off weight is unlikely. “Honestly, I don’t see a need for that in the short term,” he says, given the A220’s current range capability in comparison with other Airbus jets.
But longer range appeals to business-jet operators, and Airbus has developed a corporate version of the A220-100 – branded the ACJ TwoTwenty – which can fly 5,650nm. The initial VIP-fitted aircraft, completed by Comlux in Indianapolis, was delivered to Dubai hotel and resort firm Five this year.
Dewar says the A220 is still a new platform, and “it definitely has room to grow”. The -300 is the baseline model, and while the -100 is a shrink, Dewar stresses that it is an optimised shrink, with structurally-lighter wings and other weight reductions in the central section.
“From the centre fuselage forward and aft, it’s all common to the -100 and -300 because the loading is quite similar for the two products,” he says, which means that any proposed longer version of the A220 would be a “first stretch”.
Dewar is reluctant to echo Airbus’s tentative reference to the potential stretch as the ‘A220-500’. “We just call it an evolution,” he says. While there is “large interest” in such a development, he adds, Airbus is currently “going back to basics” by concentrating on ramp-up, programme maturity, and cost reduction.
Airbus’s Canadian and US A220 assembly lines are intended for monthly production rates of 10 aircraft at Montreal Mirabel and four at Mobile, Alabama. But the total output is currently six, and the airframer is still striving to achieve break-even on the programme by mid-decade – an ambition hardly helped by the in-service issues affecting the type’s PW1500G engine.
But Dewar is optimistic about the cost trajectory. Airbus has strong purchasing power, he says, and brings “a lot of credibility” to the A220 programme. “Sales have really taken off. That builds confidence for suppliers,” he states. “So they’ll also invest and ramp-up for us, and they can lower their costs as well.”
Christian Scherer says the A220 is following a “solid climb trajectory” and that there will “probably” be a “third member” of the family. But he insists Airbus must first concentrate on addressing the “very steep” ramp-up for the current A220 variants.
“There is no pressing need, per se, to stretch it,” he says. “We’re continuing to sell A320s very well, and therefore it’s not an acute, it’s not a pressing matter.
“It’s a natural evolution that will come at one point, but today we don’t need it because our demand for the existing product exceeds our ability to supply it. So there shouldn’t be a pressing need to throw money at a stretch.”