While demand for very large aircraft slumps, Boeing and Airbus are positioning themselves for battles in the middle of the market and considering further stretches of their larger twins.

Airbus and Boeing are reducing A380 and 747-8 production rates, respectively, to levels that would appear to be barely sustainable in the longer term. However, Airbus is equivocal about an A380 stretch or refresh – something that lead operator Emirates Airline would certainly like to see – but the market will face an influx of second-hand aircraft in the next couple of years as leases end and other superjumbos face major checks.

A product for the so-called “middle of the market” segment remains elusive. Roughly defined as the gap left by the departure from production of the 757, Boeing has narrowed it down to jets with 200 to 220 seats and a range of 4,000-5,000nm (7,400-9,250km), but it has not yet decided how to fill it.

Increasing the capacity of the 737 any further is probably a stretch too far, and studies are pointing to a new twin-aisle aircraft, potentially with an elliptical fuselage design, to enter service in the 2024-2025 time period.

Airbus, meanwhile, is making market headway with its 4,000nm-range, 164- to 206-seat A321LR, particularly with European airlines such as Norwegian and TAP wanting to open up low-cost transatlantic routes. Questions remain about the total size of this market, but Boeing will need to decide on a “new midsize aircraft” before Airbus has the gap sewn up.

In the growing 350- to 400-seat sector, Boeing is considering a further stretch of the 777X to create a 777-10, while Airbus is expected to decide for or against an A350-2000 by the end of the year. If both concepts are advanced, there might be six products in the market with more than 400 seats by 2020; assuming the A380 and 747-8 remain viable.

It has been a year of milestones for the big two airframers. Boeing marked its centenary in July and it was also the 50th anniversary of the launch of the 747, but also one sadly marked by the passing of Joe Sutter, manager of the original design team for the iconic jumbo jet. The 737 Max took to the air and the A320neo entered passenger service, while Airbus delivered its 10,000th aircraft – an A350 – in October.

Further afield, the Comac C919 and Irkut MC-21 may yet achieve first flights before the end of 2016, but progress has not been inspirational with either product. The single-aisle market may not remain a duopoly forever, but Russian and Chinese manufacturers have some way to go before seriously challenging the big players.

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Source: Flight International