If the French language has an equivalent of being ‘not out of the woods yet’, it is surely the expression ‘not yet out of the inn’ – a probable reference to a slang term for prison, and altogether far more apt when applied to a situation where lockdown, confinement and restriction have been part of the routine.
Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury believes the air transport sector’s recovery from the pandemic – “without question, the worst crisis the industry has ever faced” – is gaining traction, but acknowledges that crucial areas of the world, notably China, are still struggling to bring Covid-19 under control.
“It is clear the global supply and logistical chain faces further disruptions this year from the Covid pandemic in China,” he said at an event in the UK during May, pointing out that circumstances in Europe, where concerns over Covid have given way to those over the conflict in Ukraine, are also adding to Airbus’s risk profile for the rest of the year.
Long-haul activity remains mired. Since the end of 2019 the total number of A330s and A350s ordered has contracted by nearly 70. The A330neo has been hit hard by mass cancellations from key customer AirAsia – a carrier which had driven the aircraft’s development – while the A350-1000 has experienced an order erosion offset only by gains from the A350 Freighter launch.
The freighter has offered a glimmer of widebody optimism, attracting the interest of blue-chip operators and lessors, as Airbus pursues the Boeing 747 and MD-11 cargo replacement market.
Qantas has also signalled a long-haul revival and given the A350-1000 a high-profile lift through its ambitious ‘Project Sunrise’ initiative to serve routes including London-Sydney non-stop.
Airbus has continued to tweak the A350, quietly raising the maximum take-off weight for the -900 to 283t to provide airlines with “more choice and flexibility”, it says. It also recently obtained certification for the 251t version of its A330-800.
Faury believes the long-term trend “does now point towards a durable recovery”, underpinned by strong customer demand, and the airframer’s immediate attention is concentrated on its single-aisle business.
Over the first four months of 2022 the monthly A320neo-family delivery rate has been picking up, averaging around 36 aircraft per month, although still below the pre-crisis figure of 45.
But there is conspicuous evidence of a shift in the mix. While logistics issues with deliveries, prominent during the depths of the pandemic, might still have an influence, Airbus’s records this year show that deliveries of the largest model, the A321neo, overtook those of the A320neo in the period to the end of May.
The popularity of the A321neo – its backlog exceeds that of the A320neo by more than 1,100 – is highly relevant to Airbus’s ramp-up strategy.
Airbus is developing a flexible final assembly line in Toulouse for manufacturing A321neos, which it intends to put into operation around the end of this year. The Chinese plant at Tianjin is to be modernised in order to accommodate A321neo production, with deliveries potentially commencing in 2023.
The airframer is further enhancing single-aisle production capability at its US plant in Mobile, Alabama, where it will construct a new final assembly line, with a view to commissioning it by the second quarter of 2025. Mobile already has the ability to handle A321neo production, and is also a manufacturing site for the A220.
With all four of its A320neo-family assembly sites upgraded to handle the largest variant, the airframer will be able to distribute the burden of the heavy A321neo backlog, which stands at more than 3,400 aircraft, more efficiently.
Faury says the company is “progressing” towards a monthly production rate of 65 A320neo-family aircraft in summer 2023, “which is where we were just before Covid”, but it is laying foundations to take this up to 75 monthly over the subsequent two years.
“That’s unprecedented in this industry,” Faury says.
Ahead of the Farnborough air show, he flagged the benefits of the ramp-up to the UK business. “It means investment in new production facilities and new high-value jobs,” he says.
“The UK is the best place in the world to make wings and it will continue to make a massive contribution to meeting future demand.”
Airbus’s influence on the UK economy had been detailed in a March 2022 study by Oxford Economics, which set out to analyse the company’s benefits to the country’s aerospace industry and the impact of the pandemic on its operations.
The UK operation generated £6.8 billion ($8.5 billion) in pre-crisis 2019, of which £5.5 billion came from the commercial aircraft division.
But this overall revenue level slipped to £4.2 billion in 2020, as the pandemic took hold. Although Airbus’s UK commercial aircraft workforce stayed relatively stable, at about 8,500 personnel – mostly at the Broughton and Filton facilities – the number of jobs in the country that the division supported dropped by close to 40%, to around 65,000. The commercial aircraft operation was the most affected business area, and its contribution to UK GDP tumbled from £7.5 billion to £3.7 billion.
Recovery of civil aircraft manufacturing is important to the UK government’s efforts to ‘level up’ – addressing the gap in prosperity between the northern and southern parts of the nation – given that Airbus spends a “disproportionate” amount of its procurement funding in deprived areas, with 45% of the £2.6 billion spend in 2019 with suppliers based in the 10% most-deprived local authority areas.
While production of current models is crucial to the UK economy, Airbus is capitalising on the country’s specialised wing capabilities through its ‘Wing of Tomorrow’ research initiative, under which three full-scale prototype wings will be developed to examine system integration, structural analysis, and industrial production of new wing architecture and aerodynamic concepts.
Airbus says the programme, in which other European sites will participate, will introduce more than 100 new technologies, including simplified high-speed manufacturing, with the intention of exploring sustainable operations through wing design.
Faury underlines his optimism that Airbus will advance development of hydrogen-fuelled aircraft to achieve entry-into-service in 2035, and will set up a UK hydrogen technology and zero-emission centre – focused on end-to-end fuel system and cryogenic testing – to complement research in other parts of Europe. The airframer is aiming for initial tank ground-testing next year and flight-testing in 2026.
For flight tests, Airbus is co-operating with propulsion specialist CFM International’s partners, Safran and GE Aviation, to develop a hydrogen-fuelled demonstrator based on the GE Passport engine, and mounted on an A380.
The airframer will convert the A380 testbed MSN1’s fuselage to carry the powerplant and install four liquid-hydrogen tanks – capable of carrying 400kg (880lb) of fuel – and a distribution system to transfer fuel to the engine. Airbus chief technology officer Sabine Klauke says the manufacturer is “starting to mature the technological bricks” for hydrogen aviation.
Airbus has stressed that aircraft technology is only one aspect of the evolution towards hydrogen flight, and it is exploring crucial issues such as operational and infrastructure challenges, and the effects of aircraft performance and range on airline networks, with partner carriers – among them Wizz Air, already one of Airbus’s strongest single-aisle customers.
The airframer is configuring its industrial operation for single-aisle ramp-up, as well as subsequent aircraft development, putting new aerostructures entities in place in Germany and France which will bind Airbus more closely to its partner facilities.
Crucial to the single-aisle strategy is the A321XLR, the longest-range variant of the A321neo, the first example of which, MSN11000, made its debut flight on 15 June, after being rolled out in a colour scheme highlighting its 4,700nm (8,700km) capability.
Three flight-test aircraft are being produced at Airbus’s Hamburg Finkenwerder plant, and a set of system ground tests will support the certification campaign. Among them is a ‘virtual first flight’ programme, which began in March, to allow the crew to assess flight-control laws, the autopilot and modifications with a fixed dedicated development simulator in Toulouse – featuring pilot controls and displays for flight-test engineers – co-located with an avionics test laboratory.
This laboratory contains the same avionics modules as those that will be fitted in the A321XLR. They are linked to the simulator to enable crews to explore the aircraft’s envelope and its response during certain phases of flight. Before being tied to the simulator the modules undergo fine-tuning on associated integration benches.
The virtual first flight process was to reach its apex with a “rehearsal”, says integrated product team leader for laboratory and flight tests Vincent Claudel.
“All the flight crew [including pilots and engineers] will be seated in the simulator, where they will run through all the phases that they will subsequently perform in the real aircraft.”
These include electrical and engine power-on, taxiing and take-off, climb, and the opening of the flight envelope, followed by landing, taxi back and power-down. “They will do everything they will do in the real flight, and in the same order,” Claudel says.
While a new aircraft development would normally entail ‘iron bird’ rig testing, the A321XLR is a derivative and the physical flight-control tests will be limited mainly to the electronic rudder which Airbus is introducing on the A320neo family.
The aircraft’s rudder architecture currently features mechanical linkages from the pedals to the hydraulic actuators. The ‘E-rudder’ will replace this with an electric interface – saving around 40kg in weight and enabling removal of a number of flight-control computers as well as other systems.
Claudel says several other A321XLR test programmes have been in place for more than a year, at facilities in the UK and Germany, to supplement the main flight-test work being conducted in Toulouse.
Hamburg serves not only as the site of the aircraft’s physical production, but also as the base for various system checks – including those for air conditioning and the water-and-waste installations for the twinjet. Use of the single-aisle aircraft for long-haul services brings particular demands for passenger comfort, and the cabin is being refined through the use of a multiclimatic chamber at the Hamburg test facility.
Airbus’s operation in Bremen specialises in high-lift devices and has been tasked with validating the A321XLR’s inboard single-slotted flap configuration, which Claudel says is “specific” to the variant.
The UK’s contribution to the aircraft’s testing includes bench checks on the uprated landing-gear, wheels and brakes. The A321XLR achieves its longer range through a higher fuel capacity and a corresponding increased maximum take-off weight of 101t.
Airbus’s Filton aerospace centre is carrying out the landing gear validation, as well as fuel integration and inerting tests. But it will also assess modifications to the high-capacity rear centre fuel tank, says Claudel. This is arguably the most fundamental change from the previous A321neo architecture.
This tank – which will hold nearly 13,000 litres of fuel – is located in the aft hold. But Airbus’s planned modification has raised concerns from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) over the tank’s crashworthiness, as well as its potential vulnerability to penetration or explosion resulting from a fuel-fed ground fire, and the need for sufficient protection for evacuating passengers if regular insulation material cannot be installed.
Satisfying EASA’s certification requirements for the A321XLR has forced Airbus to push back entry into service of the twinjet, from 2023 to 2024.
“Unfortunately it’s not completely uncommon in development of new versions,” says Faury, acknowledging that the airframer needs to undertake modifications which are “more specific to this variant”.
“We are working hard with our customers to try to mitigate the impact of [the delay],” he adds.
But he insists the postponement is not a dramatic shift in the A321XLR development schedule, and that it is “not changing the picture” of the overall programme, ahead of the year-long flight-testing for the long-range jet. He remains optimistic over the aircraft’s prospects.
Regardless of whether the door to recovery belongs to an inn or a prison, Faury believes Airbus has access to the key.