Airbus insists that the higher-weight A330 will not evolve into a substitute for the A350-800, reiterating that it still intends to develop the shrink variant of its new twinjet family.

Chief operating officer for customers John Leahy stresses that there is "not even an internal review" over the -800's future, although he says slot constraints on the A350 programme are directing the airframer to prioritise sales of the higher-value -900.

Airbus will tweak the A330 family to raise the maximum take-off weight to 240t, giving a consequent increase in range, and is pitching entry into service for 2015, a year earlier than the A350-800.

Lessor CIT has become the first to commit to the improved A330, which will benefit from A350 aerodynamics. The company had previously been an A350-800 customer, with an order for five, but abandoned it in favour of the larger -900. Leahy says CIT is a strong A330 customer and its decision to take the higher-weight type is unconnected to the A350 switch. He says the modified A330 and the A350 will serve "different markets".

The new A330-300, the first variant to undergo the change, will have a range of 5,950nm (11,000km). That of the A350-800 - which will have a maximum take-off weight of 248t - is intended to be about 8,500nm. Qatar Airways is one of the primary customers of the -800, accounting for 20 of the 118 on order, and is unconvinced Airbus wants to retain the programme.

Chief executive Akbar Al Baker believes the airframer is quietly trying to shelve the -800. "Officially they are telling us they are still going to make that aircraft," he says. "We don't know."

He says the carrier's commitment to the type depends on its capability. "If it is not head and shoulders above the [Boeing] 787-8, then we will have to reconsider. In our contract with Airbus we can swap our A350 orders between the -800 and -900."

Qatar has ordered 40 A350-900s and Al Baker says he is expecting the first in mid-2014, adding that this amounts to a six- or seven-month delay to contractual delivery dates.

"We had been expecting that slip and we had already built a buffer into our preparations," he says. "We realise that it is heavier than in our contract with them, but there are ways around this and we are talking to Airbus about how to resolve this."

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news