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ISTAT: Leahy changes opinion on demand for new A350 stretch

Airbus chief operating officer for customers John Leahy now thinks a market exists for a 45-seat stretch of the Airbus A350-1000 after speaking to multiple airlines around the world.

“I’m the one that started out with probably the most scepticism of is there really a market for 45 more seats,” Leahy says on the sidelines of the ISTAT Americas conference on 29 February. “Now I think there is some market.”

The shift in Leahy’s stance has come after a months-long series of discussions with customers that is continuing even today.

“I’m going to lunch with an airline right now to talk specifically about stretching it,” Leahy says.

The response from airlines so far has been “positive” about launching a further stretch of the A350 to compete with the 400-seat-class Boeing 777-9, Leahy says.

But Leahy’s comments stop short of a formal commitment to launch the programme. More details about Airbus’s plans for the A350 family could be released in July at the Farnborough air show, he says.

“We’ll just say more,” Leahy says. “We might say we’ve talked to the airlines and they don’t think there’s that big of a market there. We might say there is a market and we’re going to launch it before the end of the year.”

But the audience at ISTAT Americas seemed split on Airbus’s commitment to launching a stretch of the A350-1000. A moderator polled the audience with the question: “Will Airbus launch a new A350-1100 widebody twin?” Around 41% of the audience voted that Airbus will not launch a new widebody aircraft before 2020.

But an ISTAT Americas panelist, Oriel co-founder and senior appraiser Olga Razzhivina, strongly supports a stretched A350 launch.

“I think they should do it as soon as possible,” Razzhivina says. “Airbus has always been lagging in the 777-300ER market and they need something to compete with the 777X. And the engine is there.”

Indeed, Leahy agrees that Boeing found a “sweet spot” in the market with the 777-300ER. Airbus launched the A350-1000 to capture the replacement market for Boeing’s record-selling twin-aisle.

But he disagrees with Boeing’s decision to replace the 360-seat-class 777-300ER with the 777-9, featuring about 40 more seats.

“The 777-300ER market didn’t all just magically shift because [Boeing] wanted it to,” Leahy says in an interview. “Most of the market stayed there. But there is probably a demand in that [400-seat] category.”

Asked to describe the technical challenge posed by yet another A350 stretch, Leahy declines to be specific.

“It depends on what we actually do: how many frames we stretch the airframe, how much higher we take the maximum takeoff weight,” says Leahy. “And that’s not been finalised.”

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