Airbus believes that a viable all-new single-aisle airliner will not arrive before 2030, due to the timing of the necessary advances in powerplant technology. It is therefore fairly confident that Boeing will end up deciding to launch a re-engined 737, rather than a clean-sheet narrowbody, to counter the A320neo.
Boeing is evaluating whether to go with an all-new 737 replacement for introduction around a decade from now - five years after the A320neo is due to arrive - or follow Airbus's lead and re-engine its existing models with advanced turbofans like the Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan and/or CFM Leap-X.
With the A320neo having accumulated more than 330 commitments since launch in December, Airbus chief operating officer customers John Leahy dismisses suggestions that there is confusion among the airlines as to whether they would prefer an upgraded or an all-new aircraft in the A320/737 category.
"The fact is that the market is making it very clear what it wants - it wants the re-engined A320 and probably wants a re-engined 737 as well," he says.
Speaking in Toulouse during a briefing for journalists this week, Leahy said that engines, rather than airframe technology, are the main driver behind step-changes in fuel burn, so the pace of powerplant development will determine the timing of a viable all-new single-aisle.
"The next big engine breakthrough, offering a 20-25% reduction in fuel burn, will probably be the unducted fan. And according to NASA, which is doing a lot of work on that, the next big breakthrough is coming around 2030-35, once they figure out how to tackle blade containment, noise etc."
Airbus had been projecting that its "A30X" A320 replacement would arrive around 2025, but "we honestly think now that it has been pushed into the next decade" so it can benefit from engine technology a step beyond that offered on the A320neo, says Leahy.
Airbus calculates that for a clean-sheet design entering service in 2020, new airframe, systems, and aerodynamics technology could only deliver 3-3.5% better economics than today's A320. "So if you want to spend your $10-12 billion, you get that [3-3.5%] and the engines which are available in 2020 - the [A320neo's] GTF and Leap-X, or maybe something from Rolls-Royce with similar SFCs. That's one of the reasons we decided to launch the Neo."
Leahy expects that while Boeing will be highly vocal in the near term about plans for an all-new airliner, it will ultimately decide to re-engine the 737. "When United Airlines bought the A320, Boeing decided it needed to re-do the 737 and that's exactly what I think is going to happen again. When one big Boeing customer decides to go with the Neo, then all this 'BS' about game-changng airplanes available in 2020 will stop, and you'll see a re-engined 737."
With the prospect of any all-new Airbus single-aisle not arriving until the 2030s, Leahy has extended the A320neo's 2015-25 sales window out to 2030, increasing the "open demand" forecast in its category from 8,000 to 12,000 aircraft.
Airbus, as usual, is targeting a 50% share of that. "We've sold over 6,000 A320s and by 2030 we're going to sell another 6,000," says Leahy, which would take sales of the twinjet to 12,000 aircraft. "And if Boeing doesn't do something, we're going to get a lot more than half of that."