The fight is getting ugly between the airframe heavyweights, as they battle it out with increasing intensity in what is dubbed the "middle of the market".

As the competition heats up, Boeing has achieved a crucial order flip with a key Airbus customer, while ­Toulouse is considering its strategy to counter any game-changing product development decision by its rival.

A queue of airlines is lining up to talk to Boeing about its plans for a "New Mid-market Airplane" (NMA). However, all that seems to be on offer at the moment is nothing more than a "paper airplane" design accompanied by a raft of impressive promises.

Meanwhile, Airbus has been making a lot of noise about the capabilities of the extended range A321LR. Just days after its maiden sortie, the prototype flew a promotional transatlantic leg, to remind anyone who may have ­forgotten that Airbus thinks it already has an airliner to address much of the sector Boeing's NMA is aimed at.

Unfortunately for Airbus, its rival was able to orchestrate a high-profile reminder about one of its struggling ­products. After a hard fight, Boeing managed to turn Hawaiian Airlines' A330-800 order into a deal for ­787-9s. In one fell swoop, Seattle has left the smaller A330neo variant without any orders while marginalising Airbus at a key US customer.

On the face of it, the Hawaiian widebody campaign was Airbus's to lose. It was the incumbent supplier and already has a major presence in the Pacific airline's single- and twin-aisle fleets. But the reality is that Airbus effectively lost its one and only ­A330-800 launch customer when Hawaiian decided to reopen the ­competition last year. It decided to re-examine the order as it wasn't happy being the sole A330-800 customer.

The obvious move would be to renegotiate its order with Airbus, and switch to the larger and much more popular A330-900. Hawaiian had already switched its widebody order once. Back in 2014, the airline's contract for the defunct A350-800 was flipped over to the A330-800, which also provided Airbus with a launch customer for the smaller Neo variant.

Or so it thought. Even though the loss of Hawaiian leaves the A330-800 uncomfortably exposed, the programme as a whole has a good bedrock of over 200 orders for the -900 variant, which gives Airbus some time to recover. The A330-800 is a natural successor to the A330-200 from which it evolved. That fleet is still relatively young, but when the time comes for replacement, Airbus must ensure no opportunities slip through its grasp.

Given the status of its target replacement fleet, the signs are that A330-800 could be a "sleeper". The question is, will Boeing ever allow it awaken from its slumber?

Seattle's aggressive – and ultimately successful – manoeuvre at Hawaiian could be a sign of things to come.

As Boeing works to build the business case for NMA, it must be wary of any pincer movement Airbus makes to tackle that market segment. Toulouse intends to cover off the middle of the market from below with its A321LR and from above with the A330-800 (and perhaps -900). If successful, it believes the NMA's niche will become just that – a market too small to justify the $10 billion-plus investment to develop a new aircraft.

While all this has been going on, Airbus and Boeing continue to churn out single-aisles at record levels. Weeks after Airbus unveiled its 8,000th A320-family aircraft, Boeing went two thousand better with the 737. That achievement is as remarkable for its volume as it is for the longevity of production: the first 737 was delivered more than 50 years ago.

The A320 and 737 sales teams have been sparring now for three decades. Boeing has the upper hand in sheer production numbers, but Airbus is marching ahead in the current Neo versus Max campaign, which is partly why Boeing is urgently considering its next move.

We won't have to wait long to find out the answer.

Source: Airline Business