The Airbus A220 has proven itself to be a popular aircraft before, during and likely after the pandemic. Some airline customers have already said they’d be interested in a slightly larger variant, dubbed the A220-500. Airbus Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer noted that the potential is there, but it’s not a priority yet.
The pandemic winner
The Airbus A220 has been a resounding success for the planemaker since it took the program under its wing. With 649 orders to date, most of which were confirmed since Airbus took control, the regional plane is going from strength to strength.
During the pandemic, the A220 was one of the world’s most active aircraft, with more than 93% of the global fleet in active service by August 2020. Its optimal size, range and capacity have set it up to be a post-pandemic winner, something Airbus is likely keen to capitalize on.
While the smallest A220-100 has a solid level of sales, the larger A220-300 is far more popular. To date, 559 of the 649 total orders have been for this variant. With that in mind, could making it a little bit bigger be a boon for Airbus?
When the A220 was originally designed, Bombardier had crunched all the numbers for a stretch of the plane. The A220-500 was not only possible, but designed in from the start. Several A220 airlines, including Air France and airBaltic, have said in the past they’d be up for the stretch, but is Airbus ready to take the plunge?
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Not until it reaches ‘cruising altitude’
Speaking at a media briefing yesterday, Airbus Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer noted that the potential is there, but it’s not on the cards yet. He said,
“Regarding the stretch the aeroplane, has the capability of being stretched. But before it is stretched, it will reach its cruising altitude.”
What is intended by ‘cruising altitude’ we can take to relate to the ramp-up of production for the A220. Currently, the aircraft is only being produced at a rate of five aircraft per month. With some 490 aircraft outstanding on the order book, it would take Airbus a long time to clear its backlog at the present rate.
Yesterday, Airbus noted that it plans to increase this output to six per month in 2022, and by the mid-decade, to be pushing the A220 out at a rate of 14 aircraft per month. That’s an impressive level of scaling up in a relatively short space of time, part of which will be facilitated by the repurposing of Bombardier facilities in Mirabel, a project which is already underway.
Although the Airbus CCO did not elaborate on what the ‘cruising altitude’ would be, we can assume he means when the production has ramped up to 14, or at least close to that target. As such, we would anticipate an announcement on an A220 stretch around the middle of the decade (2024 – 2026).
While a stretch A220-500 would begin to encroach on the bottom end of the A320 family of jets, it’s a natural progression for the smaller aircraft. The A319neo has amassed a poor fraction of orders, just 73 from the pool of 7,400 total A320neo family bookings. If a big A220 is seen to sell better than a small A320, perhaps this is a better route for the planemaker to pursue.
Either way, it’s clear no decision will be made until Airbus has dialed up its manufacturing capabilities somewhat.