Finally, the narrowbody stand-off ends. For years, Boeing and Airbus have weighed the benefits of first-mover advantage against the perils of jumping the gun with an underwhelming product. Two things delayed decisions. One was the continued buoyancy of Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 sales. The other, that confusion seemed equally deep on either side.

But with the pair locked in stasis, external threats have been gathering, from Irkut's MS-21, Comac's C919 and, most dramatically, Bombardier's CSeries, an airliner that edges into space previously dominated by the big two - and about which the manufacturer has been increasingly bullish. It could be this, as much as the desire to trump Seattle, that has prompted Airbus to finally commit to its long-mooted A320 NEO.

By electing to re-engine its cash-cow type, Airbus makes the call that it's better to offer customers efficiencies in the (relatively) near term than try their patience with a new type that could only deliver the holy grail of a "step change" well into the next decade. The European airframer also triggers a hell of a headache in Seattle. Equally, however, it takes a major risk.

In the best-case scenario, the NEO is "new" enough to not only sustain A320 sales but eat into the 737's figures for as long as that type seems like old hat and an all-new replacements is a dot on the horizon. Given the ever-extending timeframes in new aircraft production, that could be a catastrophe for Boeing.

But of course, other outcomes are imaginable. If the airlines deem that Airbus has spurned those step-change demands, the European airframer is forced to scramble to catch up with any all-new type pursued by Boeing - and hope that delays make it possible.

But perhaps it's most likely that while the NEO fails to overwhelm, it's enough to keep production lines busy and prompt Boeing to pursue the "me-too" option of re-engining the 737 to ensure it keeps pace, with price drops compensating any performance shortfall. But even that scenario is not as cosy as it might sound. With comparatively high cost bases, Airbus and Boeing are condemned to constantly innovate to ward off the threat from new competitors. If they shirk it, they may find themselves facing credible competition China and Russia, as well as Canada. And they could still meet rising protests from impatient customers.

But someone had to go first and Airbus gains a reputation boost by stepping up. After all, markets are hard on big-name players with their heads in the sand.

Source: Flight International