Just 18 months after Toulouse acquired the twin-jet from Bombardier, production of the A220 is ramping up steadily
When Air France-KLM chief Ben Smith showed off the group’s fleet development plan in early November last year, one of his slides mischievously referred to the “A220‑500”, a hypothetical stretch of the Airbus A220 beyond its two-member family.
“If Airbus builds a series -500, a larger model, a -400, whatever it calls it,” said Smith, “we’d be very interested in that airplane.”
Given that Air France was finalising one of the largest orders for the A220 since Airbus took over the former CSeries programme from Bombardier in mid-2018, Smith’s remarks stirred murmurs as to whether the airline – the flag-carrier of Airbus’s home nation – was privy to undisclosed aspects of future A220 development.
Bombardier sparked conjecture more than 10 years ago that it would further develop the then-CS100 and CS300 by trademarking a “CS500” designation – purely a protective measure, claimed the airframer at the time, and the trademark lapsed in 2014.
The French have an expression – “minute, papillon” – which loosely translates as “hold your horses”, and this appears to sum up A220 programme chief Florent Massou’s view on ambitions to stretch the aircraft into the hallowed 150-seat realm dominated for more than three decades by the A320 and Boeing 737.
“It’s good that customers are showing interest in the capability of the platform,” says Massou. “But concentrating on the A220-100 and -300 is what we’re doing day to day. There is no plan today for a stretch.”
If Air France’s reference to the A220-500 is premature, the airline’s order for up to 120 A220-300s has nevertheless cemented the aircraft as a serious contender in the cut-throat single-aisle sector – justifying Bombardier’s faith, maintained for 20 years, that demand existed for an all-new twinjet, optimised for the 100- to 130-seat category.
Airbus has spent its first 18 months of programme ownership examining the A220 airframe to extract near-term improvements and enhance the aircraft’s appeal.
When was the A220 certified?
Within six months of the programme acquisition, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certificated the A220 to Category IIIa and IIIb low-visibility autoland capability, enabling it to carry out approaches in more restrictive weather conditions – including zero decision height – compared with the type’s previous Category II approval. The A220 also has required navigation performance, approval required capability for area navigation.
Airbus is planning to certificate the A220‑300 in the second half of this year with a higher maximum take-off weight (MTOW), lifting it by 2.27t to a figure of nearly 69.9t. This will provide a 450nm (833km) hike in range to 3,350nm. Airbus will also apply the same weight increase to the -100 variant – giving it a 3,400nm range – from the second half of 2021. The change will increase the -100’s MTOW to just over 63t.
“Only minor software and hardware change is anticipated,” says Airbus, adding that it will achieve the range improvement by taking advantage of existing structural and systems margins as well as current fuel capacity. Certification is being proposed on “analysis and usage of existing flight-test data”, it states.
Minor software and hardware retrofit, as well as paper changes, will enable the new weight capabilities to be introduced to A220s already in service. Delta Air Lines – which has ordered 95 A220s, split between the -100 and -300 – has already emerged as a customer for the higher MTOW version and will take the enhancement for its entire fleet.
Airbus is also planning additional performance improvements through weight tweaks to the jet. It is to increase, by just over 1.8t, both the maximum zero-fuel weight and maximum landing weight, in order to offer additional payload capability.
Massou says this will be offered as an option to airlines to provide “operational flexibility” and will be available for both variants in 2022, subject to regulatory approval.
The current maximum zero-fuel weights for the -300 and -100 are respectively 55.8t and 50.4t, while the maximum landing weights stand at 58.7t and 52.4t.
Unencumbered by legacy production processes and cockpit designs, the A220 took advantage of sidesticks, fly-by-wire technology and advanced construction, including a resin transfer infusion process to develop the composite torque box for the wing.
The A220’s radical Pratt & Whitney PW1500G geared turbofan (GTF) engines – featuring a 1.85m (73in) fan and 12:1 bypass ratio – appear to have escaped the problems that dogged early production of the sister PW1100G for the A320neo.
Early operator Swiss, however, has experienced several low-pressure compressor rotor fracture problems, which are suspected to be linked with high thrust settings during high-altitude climb, and have resulted in temporary operational restrictions on the type. These limit engine power to 94% of N1 while above 29,000ft.
Analysis of the problem indicates a possible link to electronic engine-control software. Massou says the limitations are a “precautionary measure” and he is “confident” P&W will succeed with root-cause analysis and resolution.
Massou says the A220 is meeting fuel-burn targets and there are no immediate plans for either a thrust enhancement or specific performance tweaks. “The current performance of the engines is OK, and where it needs to be,” he states.
FADEC plays a key role for Swiss by providing the A220’s steep-approach capability, necessary for London City airport operations, adjusting the idle thrust while the fly-by-wire differentially deflects spoilers.
Transport Canada certificated the A220 with 180min extended twin-engine operations approval, and at least one future operator – start-up Odyssey Airlines – views the aircraft as having transatlantic potential.
Airbus has ironically helped nurse the A220 into remarkable health, considering that it had originally declared the Bombardier jet to be dead on arrival.
As the 110-seat Bombardier BRJ-X concept, somewhat stumblingly, evolved into a 110- to 130-seat family, the Canadian airframer – after false starts – boldly launched the two-member CSeries family in 2008, with little more than a tentative agreement for up to 60 jets from Lufthansa Group.
What is the competition for the A220?
Airbus had confidently dismissed the potential threat, insisting that its strategy of developing the re-engined A320neo using the CSeries’ GTF powerplants would close off the market to Canada’s young pretender. Its A319neo – the direct competitor – would leave the CSeries with “virtually no business case”, the airframer’s outspoken then-sales chief John Leahy declared.
The market has decided otherwise, although convincing potential operators has been a slow process.
While Lufthansa, which ordered the jets for Swiss, gave the CSeries an early lift, Bombardier doggedly had to persist in building a customer base, picking up piecemeal agreements, often from fringe carriers, as it sought an elusive blue-chip deal.
It had accumulated orders for fewer than 250 aircraft in the seven years following launch, when a financial crisis engulfed the programme in 2015. Bombardier overhauled its top management and sales strategy, and sought investment for the CSeries, offering a stake in the programme to Airbus – which declined – before the Quebec government stepped in with a $1 billion bail-out.
The shake-up appeared to revitalise the programme and brought crucial large-scale network carrier orders from Delta and Air Canada, and Bombardier delivered the first aircraft, to Swiss and Air Baltic, in the second half of 2016.
But having done the hard work, seen the CSeries to completion, and notched up just over 400 orders, a weakened Bombardier surrendered the programme to Airbus – whose own A319neo was selling poorly – the following year, beginning a landmark break-up of Bombardier’s entire commercial air transport business.
While Airbus still relies on Bombardier for some services, says Massou, the integration has reached a point where “all the [A220] functions in Airbus are just working like any other programme”. Procurement, supply-chain agreements, sales and marketing have all been transferred and the support network is being finalised.
“We are very pleased,” says Massou. “The A220 is now part of the family, a very dynamic one. It’s a very positive message.”
Airbus’s influence has been demonstrated by the sales record. Massou says some 300 orders and commitments have been added just in the first 18 months under the airframer. At the close of 2019, firm orders stood at precisely 600.
“There are endorsements by big lessors,” Massou points out. “I think it gives confidence to the future of the programme. Without Airbus that would have been difficult.”
Overall production of the A220 has reached triple figures, the 100th aircraft having been delivered to Air Baltic – one of the strongest early supporters of the jet.
What is the configuration for the A220?
The A220 features a characteristic five-abreast interior. Transport Canada and EASA originally listed a maximum of 127 passengers for the -100 and 145 for the -300, but Bombardier has since offered a high-density version with 160 seats, requiring the addition of a second over-wing exit.
Air Canada became the latest operator of the type in January, its A220-300 having been configured with 137 seats in two classes, with in-flight entertainment systems. It was the first to receive a dual aft lavatory option with a moveable wall to convert to a facility for mobility-impaired users.
Massou says the airframer has also developed a new higher-capacity cabin, providing airlines with the option of up to 149 seats with a single over-wing exit. Czech Airlines has disclosed that it will take A220-300s with a 149-seat layout.
Airbus has been working to bring up the dispatch reliability, which it says is currently running at about 99%, and has also commenced data studies intended to maximise aircraft availability by increasing maintenance interval times.
This effort would extend the light-maintenance interval from 850h to 1,000h and similarly expand that for base maintenance from 8,500h to 10,000h. Heavy structural checks would take place at 12 years.
Massou says Airbus is working to improve the A220’s maturity, claiming that intense efforts have reduced by four-fold the number of parts that are late in production, reducing disruption to the industrial system.
He adds that the airframer is focused on ramp-up, rather than any ambitious development of further variants, capitalising on Bombardier’s withdrawal from the commercial aviation market to restructure and increase the efficiency of A220 production at its Montreal Mirabel site.
Bombardier has chosen to divest the CRJ regional jet programme to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Massou says that, with the CRJ exit from the end of this year, Airbus has been working on a programme it calls a “pre-final assembly line” in order to support the planned A220 ramp-up.
“It’s something we have developed to cope with much higher rates,” he says. “It required something a bit different.”
What is the future of the A220?
He says Airbus will “take advantage of the CRJ jigs on site” and plans to change the way the airframer completes the A220 mid-fuselage before it undergoes fuselage join on the final assembly line. This would apply to aircraft destined for final assembly at both Mirabel and the new US line in Mobile, Alabama. Massou says the pre-final assembly line facility, located in a building adjacent to the Mirabel final assembly line, will be ready in the second half of 2021.
Airbus handed over 48 A220s last year, exceeding its target of 45 and taking the total number of delivered aircraft to 105. Two-thirds of overall deliveries have taken place in the 18 months under Airbus.
Massou says there are no plans for a further final assembly line. Fourteen aircraft per month – 10 from Mirabel, four from Mobile – is Airbus’s production target.
Five aircraft were in production at Mobile at the end of 2019. Initial deliveries from the plant, with a starting rate of one per month, are scheduled to take place this year.
Massou says he is satisfied with the progress Airbus has achieved with A220 production, in terms of the smooth manufacturing flow and the output.
“We had no problems before Christmas, we delivered everything we had to deliver,” he says. “I went on vacation, for the first time, very happily.”