Singapore Airlines has signed up as the launch customer for a lower operating weight "regional" version of the Airbus A350-900 long-range widebody twinjet.

Aimed at addressing the competitive threat posed by Boeing's 787-10 double stretch, the aircraft will be structurally identical to the baseline A350-900 but certificated to a reduced maximum take-off weight of 250t, compared with the standard 268t.

It will be equipped with the de-rated, 75,000lb-thrust (334kN) Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines that will power the -800 shrink version of the A350, rather than standard 84,000lb powerplants, allowing cyclic engine maintenance intervals to be extended.

Airbus says it has an undisclosed customer for the new offering, which will carry a lower sticker price than the full-specification A350-900.

But sources familiar with the situation confirm that Singapore Airlines is buying a batch of the de-specified aircraft as part of its follow-on order for 30 A350-900s announced in May 2013, for delivery starting in 2016.

The Asian carrier - which has placed total firm orders for 70 A350-900s - says it "plans to operate the aircraft on both medium- and long-range routes" but declines to comment on any plans to introduce the lower-weight version. It has also committed to 30 Boeing 787-10s.

Airbus chief operating officer for customers John Leahy says: "We are now offering an A350-900 regional, which has five or six more seats [than the 787-10], with nine-abreast seating at 18in while they have eight-abreast seating at 18in.

"I de-rate the weight of the aircraft and engine and increase the number of cycles for regional flying and I offer an A350-900 regional that clobbers the 787-10.

"It'll be offered formally later this year, but we're offering it to individual airlines right now. Some of them have even bought it, but they've kept it quiet for a while because they want to see exactly how we position it."

The principal target markets for the lower-weight A350-900 are intra-Asian, Middle East-Europe, and transatlantic routes, where Airbus claims the aircraft can offer the same payload-range capability and "comparable economics" as the 787-10, but with "better passenger comfort". Owners will be able to pay a fee to Airbus enabling them to "re-activate" the full 268t MTOW when required.

Leahy reveals that the airframer also plans to offer a new lower-weight version of the A330-300 wideobody twin, optimised for regional routes with an MTOW of around 207t, although it has recertificated the type for various customers in the past, including Qantas which bought a 202t variant of the A330-200.

"I think there's an opportunity for a 'regional' version of the A330 that's almost going full circle," says Leahy. "The A330 started out as regional aircraft, and we've now grown it up to do New York to Tokyo but it actually maintains the capability for short range. So we're looking at coming out with a lower take-off weight version of the aircraft, lower thrust on the engines, slightly improved aerodynamics, to make a regional aircraft that will be optimised to fly 4-6h around the region.

"It's not a major industrial programme, but we have to certify the lower take-off weight and lower thrust, reach agreements with the engine manufacturers. And we have to decide ourselves on the lower price for the less-capable aircraft, and then how much it would cost [for the airline] to buy back the fully-capable aircraft. We also have to certify a higher cycle limit."

He adds: "I'd like to be able to announce something on the regional aircraft by the end of the year."

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news