January 20, 2014
Credit: Airbus Concept
For years, the Airbus A350-800 program has appeared to be stalled: Its shrinking backlog and increasingly uninterested manufacturer led many to doubt that it will ever be built. Airbus's latest position seems to be that it will produce an A350-800 eventually, much later and in a different design than initially planned.
Airbus is slowly moving away from the aircraft's current layout, considering changes to make it larger and more economical to operate. It is a “distinct possibility” that Airbus might design the smallest of the three A350 versions to be bigger than planned today, according to Chief Operating Officer for Customers John Leahy, meaning that it would “sit right on top of the [Boeing] 787-9” as a 300-seater.
If Airbus goes that route, entry into service for the -800 is expected to shift from 2016, which is still the official date, to around 2020. That would enable the manufacturer to focus development resources on the larger -1000, which it now sees as much more crucial to its widebody range than the -800. But there is an as yet unnamed caveat in the planning: Should Airbus stretch the -1000 further, as Leahy indicates it is considering, that new project likely would have priority over the lower end of the A350 family spectrum.
Airbus has been lobbying its customers for years to drop orders for the -800 in favor of commitments for the larger -900 or even the -1000. While progress has been slow and talks have dragged on, the manufacturer last month convinced the newly merged American Airlines to change an order for 18 -800s originally placed by US Airways into one for -900s. Leahy says Airbus is now “in discussions with Hawaiian [Airlines],” which has bought six of the smallest A350s and adamantly has said it does not need a larger unit. The American decision reduces the -800 backlog to 61 aircraft.
Leahy argues that the company is “production-constrained until beyond 2020,” and it wants to use the available slots for the larger versions, which generate higher revenues. However, since the last of several fundamental A350 design changes, the -800 has become a smaller version of the -900 and as such is less economical than it would be with a design optimized for its size. The aircraft also has more range than required by most of the market. Some of those disadvantages could be addressed by making the -800 a little bigger.
According to Leahy, Airbus is presenting the remaining A350-800 customers two choices: take delivery of aircraft with existing specifications, which would bind Airbus to its entry-into-service commitment for 2016, or wait “a couple of years” while a larger -800 version is developed. The 2016 target date likely is not achievable, given that little work has flowed into the project recently. And Airbus is not saying when the larger -800 would be available, either, but Leahy wants to first deliver the -1000, which is scheduled to enter service in 2017.
As currently planned, the A350-800 has space for 276 passengers in a typical three-class configuration. It is 60.5 meters (198 ft.) long and has a range of 8,250 nm. The -900 is 66 meters and seats 315 passengers. The baseline A350 has a range of 7,750 nm. Leahy makes clear that even if changes are decided, Airbus will not go for an all-new aircraft in that size category; it will still be a smaller version of the -900. Probably, the redesigned -800 would have just under 300 seats and a range below the current target but still above the -900, if no other changes are incorporated. Leahy says the number of seat rows to be added has not been determined, since talks with customers are ongoing.