American Airlines’ decision to opt for the Boeing 787 and ditch a stagnant order for Airbus A350s is something of an equaliser in terms of the three US majors’ recent long-haul fleet decisions.
Delta Air Lines handed Airbus a breakthrough deal for its A330neo-A350 combination, and subsequently axed an outlier order for 787-8s originally placed by Northwest Airlines in 2005 and which Delta inherited during its merger with that carrier three years later.
In declining the A330neo in favour of the 787-8 and -9, and culling the earlier A350 pact sealed by merger partner US Airways – coincidentally, also in 2005 – American Airlines has almost inverted the Delta scenario.
United Airlines, of course, has showed that the two rivals can co-exist with an honours-even selection of both the 787 and the A350.
Airbus pulled off one of its most notable successes with American in 2011 when the US carrier split a colossal single-aisle order between the A320 and the 737, with the European jet taking the greater share.
But attempting to achieve a similar upset with the long-haul fleet was always going to be a tough endeavour. If the name “American” on the fuselage combined with the stars-and-stripes fin design were not necessarily an obstacle to an Airbus deal, the dominating presence of Boeing aircraft – including the 787 – in the US carrier’s fleet certainly was.
American’s decision inverts history in another sense. When US Airways originally selected the A350, the aircraft’s design was Airbus’s first-iteration effort to counter the 787 – essentially a re-engined and updated A330. Airbus was pitching the jet at the crucial US market, eager for a launch customer, and its agreement with US Airways was mutually beneficial.
Some 13 years later, the 787 has ultimately overturned that initial verdict, the Boeing twinjet belatedly emerging as the victor against Airbus’s current re-engined and updated A330, the A330neo.
And this is arguably the real source of anxiety for Airbus. It has established the A350 on US turf, but Airbus has yet to demonstrate, despite its confident public assertions, that the A330neo is really capable of fending off the 787 in a straight fight, particularly after its humbling by Hawaiian Airlines’ shift of allegiance.
Which means Airbus will need to prepare itself for another brutal uphill contest if the A330neo is to become a fixture, rather than a curiosity, in the US market. All eyes on United.