Airbus has not quite reached the point of declaring: “The A320 is dead – long live the A320neo,” but the transition to the re-engined version is accelerating and the backlog for the original model of its first single-aisle aircraft is rapidly diminishing.

Although the baseline A320 family ended last year with a net surplus of 46 orders, the basic model – the A320 itself – finished with a net deficit of 49. The airframer’s dominant jet, having accounted for some 4,700 sales, is approaching the end of its reign.

The A320 did not completely surrender its position in the rush for the re-engined A320neo, launched in 2010. Airbus was cautious to ensure it had a sufficient backlog to support a smooth transition of production, initially during introduction of the reinforced sharklet-capable wing and then to the re-engined aircraft itself.

Airbus commercial aircraft president Fabrice Brégier, speaking in Toulouse in mid-January, said the market for the original A320 family “remains extremely solid and extremely robust”.

A321neo first flight - Hamburg

Variants of the family's largest model will account for the bulk of 2017 output


“The transition is less sharp than we expected three or four years ago,” he says, adding that the airframer expects to deliver “quite a substantial number” of baseline aircraft beyond 2017.

But since the A320neo’s maiden flight in September 2014, the A320 backlog has been evaporating, falling by two-thirds: from 911 in January 2015 to 315 in January 2017. While this equates to around 15 months of production, based on the 251 A320s delivered last year, this does not account for the slowing of output resulting from the A320neo ramp-up, or the adjustments arising from Airbus’s higher overall monthly single-aisle production rate. The airframer has lifted this rate to around 50, in contrast with its initial plan to keep the rate at 42 per month to avoid the risk of instability during transition.

Progress report

Brégier says the airframer is “on track” for a progressive increase in this rate to 60 in mid-2019, as it works to hack away at the backlog of A320neos – over 5,000 aircraft – accumulated over the past six years.

“Our issue is to make sure we can deliver,” says Brégier, pointing out that Airbus is re-organising its “industrial footprint” with a fourth single-aisle assembly line in Hamburg – set to start producing jets this summer – and optimising its production by providing cabin-fitting capability at Toulouse. He acknowledges that Airbus still needs to “catch up” on A320neo deliveries, but expects the airframer to hand over “about triple” the number this year, compared with 68 in 2016.

Hitches with the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G engine meant only 39 of those 68 Neos were delivered with this powerplant, and Airbus ultimately reinforced its output last year with original A320-family models, delivering only 14 fewer than in 2015.

But Brégier is confident that A320neo manufacture is under control, stressing that the re-engined aircraft is meeting, or exceeding, performance commitments and achieving a dispatch reliability in the region of 99.7%.

Airbus took orders for 69 original A320s in 2015, but changes to its backlog involved 68 aircraft. Most of those changes – 31 in total – were conversions to the A320neo family as airlines opted to upgrade. But another 26 were converted to the larger A321. This was repeated last year, when 27 A320s were converted to A321s, leaving the backlogs for the original A320 and A321 virtually level.

Brégier highlights the increasing importance of the A321 and its re-engined counterpart, the A321neo, stating that the former accounted for 40% of all Airbus single-aisle deliveries last year.

Spirit A320neo engine

PW1100G hitches dented 2016 deliveries


Airbus chief operating officer for customers John Leahy says variants of the A321 will account for “over 50%” of all A320-family production this year. He claims its planned 240-seat capability places it as the “ideal middle-of-the-market airplane” – a shot at rival Boeing, which has been considering its options for the sector – and says he does not envision “any real need” for a further stretch beyond the A321.

The PW1100G-powered A321neo has already been certificated and the CFM International Leap-powered version is set to be approved in the first quarter of this year. But Airbus has yet to carry out the first delivery, saying only that it will hand over the initial A321neo “well before summer”.

Improved offering

Airbus has several enhancements under development for the A320neo family, and the A321neo in particular as it positions the aircraft as a successor to the Boeing 757-200. The longer-range version – with a 4,000nm (7,400km) capability – has attracted the interest of several carriers including Aer Lingus, Norwegian and TAP Portugal, as well as lessor Air Lease.

Airbus is set to follow the re-engining of the A321 with a substantial modification of the fuselage, repositioning doors and adding overwing exits to create the cabin configuration that will increase its accommodation to 240 seats. This follows the development of other capacity-enhancement measures on the A320 and A320neo family, including the use of new space-saving aft galleys and lavatory modules, and slim seats, combined with an increased rating on exit doors.

The A321neo will also be upgraded with a 35,000lb (155kN) powerplant option, to give it better hot-and-high performance, while a P&W engine package will provide a 2% fuel-burn improvement.

Airbus has also been developing short-field capabilities for the new single-aisle family, to increase low-speed lift and improve the A320neo’s ability to operate to airports with runway constraints – such as Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumont. Runway operations could also be enhanced through application of the brake-to-vacate technology originally developed for the A380.

Efforts to certificate the third member of the re-engined family, the A319neo, have been put back to next year, a decision Airbus attributes partly to its preference to use high-demand initial production slots to deliver larger, higher-value aircraft. The A319neo, despite being labelled early in the programme as a “killer” of Bombardier’s CSeries, has not sold well, with just 55 on order.

Airbus has yet to cross the tipping point of producing more A320neo- than A320-family jets in a single month, and the date on which the final original A320 will roll off the line is still uncertain. But the accession of the A320neo – for now, the pretender – is inevitable.

Source: Flight International