Airbus have said they are confident that existing aircraft will be able to compete with Boeing’s planned NMA. The proposed 797 might be more fuel efficient, but Airbus say that their A330neo and A321neo can meet airlines demands with more flexibility on price.
With Boeing poised to make a decision on a new midsized aircraft (NMA), all eyes are on Airbus to see how they’ll respond. We previously speculated on how the A350 could be shrunk down to fill the NMA gap, or how Airbus could re-launch the A300 as an A300neo to beat the competition.
But, according to reports today, the answer is ‘none of the above’.
According to an interview with Reuters, Airbus Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer has said that they plan to defend the middle-of-the-market segment with two existing aircraft – the A330neo at the top and the A321neo at the bottom. Scherer commented to Reuters,
“Those programs are both so mature that it gives Airbus pricing flexibility to address this middle-of-the-market segment,”
Talking like a boxer in training, Scherer went on to say that Airbus was taking a ‘left hook, right hook’ approach to the NMA situation, promoting a powerful counter punch to the proposed 797 from Boeing.
Boeing are under pressure to fill the gap being left by their retiring 767s and 757s. They have the opportunity to make something far more efficient than the Airbus jets but will need to get the price point right in order to secure adequate orders.
The first punch – the A330neo
The gap that Boeing need to fill with the NMA, dubbed the 797, is a seating capacity of around 250 but with a plane that can land at smaller airports. It would be perfect for shorter, denser routes, where the Dreamliner would be overkill but the 737 family lacks capacity.
Previously, Airbus did indeed consider a smaller version of the A350, designed to compete with the Boeing 797 concept. It was called the A350-800, and they even gathered 182 orders for the planned aircraft.
However, it fell out of favor with both Airbus and carriers when they launched the new and improved A330neo. This highly economical version of their popular widebody jet was an adequate replacement for the A350-800, so most orders were converted to this. Those customers who wanted something larger would go on to convert to the A350-900 instead.
At the time, Airbus CEO Fabrice Bergier told Aviation Week,
“I believe all of our customers will either convert to the A350-900 or the A330neo. The A330neo is the more efficient solution (compared to the A350-800).”
Now, they are planning some tweaks to the A330neo to put it in direct competition with the 797 planned by Boeing. They want to re-rate the engines for a lower thrust level, reducing fuel demands and takeoff weight. They hope that this will serve to close the gap between single aisle and long range aircraft.
The second punch – the A321XLR
The Airbus A320 family is one of the world’s most well-loved (and well sold) commercial jets. The A321neo is the biggest and most advanced of this family. If Airbus are planning an XLR or even ULR version of hits aircraft, it could indeed fill the gap that the 797 is looking to occupy.
Initial feedback suggests that Boeing are working on two versions of the 797. The first will have around 225 seats and a range of 5,000nmi, whereas the second will be stretched to accommodate up to 275 passengers, but will lose a little range, coming in at 4,500nmi. A concept A321XLR would probably seat around 220 passengers with a range of 4,700 nmi, making it a potentially good choice for carriers for whom the A330neo is just a bit much.
Will it work?
Certainly, the combination of the A321 at one end and the A330neo-800 at the other offer some serious competition to any NMA offering by Boeing. On paper, they seem to fill the gap quite nicely, but how will it work in practice?
The main disadvantage to Airbus is the fact that these are older airframes. The A330 has been around since the early 90s, and the A321 is of the same era. Both are non-composite structures, making them heavy and less fuel efficient, although they’ve had new engines added. However, bolting new technology onto old airframes sometimes isn’t the best solution.
Boeing’s 797, on the other hand, would be freshly built, with innovations from the Dreamliner and 777X a given. Composite structure will make it more fuel efficient, and passenger comforts such as bigger windows and more comfortable cabin pressure will make it an attractive proposition.
Where Airbus do have a distinct advantage, however, is in the fact that both these aircraft are already flying. This means there is no long lead time for tooling, construction, certification and all the rest, as they are simply modified versions of planes which are already in production.
This could mean that airlines will pick Airbus, simply for the fact that they can get there first. It remains to be seen if the A330neo and the A321 can work together to fill the gap in the current market before Boeing’s 797 has even taken its first test flight.