January 27, 2014
Credit: Airbus/P. Masclet
In the latest phase of the strategic chess game that the Airbus and Boeing rivalry has been in the past quarter century, all eyes are fixed on the European manufacturer to see how it will respond to Boeing's latest long-range project.
The emergence of the new Boeing twinjet-derivative family—launched at the Dubai Airshow in November on the back of orders and commitments for 259 aircraft worth $95 billion—presents Airbus with serious challenges. Not only does the smaller 777-8X variant directly compete with the 350-seat A350-1000, but the larger 777-9X opens up new territory in the potentially highly lucrative 400-plus-seat range below the A380 market for which Airbus has no current offering.
But could all that be about to change? The Hamburg-based Airbus Future Project Office along with the Universities of Aachen and Hamburg and Germany's aerospace research center DLR participated in a series of studies into large product development. It was partially funded by Airbus and through the federal aviation research program Luftfahrtforschungsprogramm (Lufo).
The initial trade studies focused on an extremely large twinjet aimed intriguingly at the 470-seat sector now served only by the 747-8. The work pre-dates the official launch of the 777X, as it was concluded in 2012, but sources familiar with the manufacturer's product development work say the New Long Range (NLR) project is attracting growing interest again as Airbus seeks a response to the 777X.
The NLR has the potential to open up a new large-capacity market in the 747 sector with the lower operating costs offered by a large twin. It would conceivably augment the slower-selling and more expensive A380 and, at the same time, be the basis for a product family including a smaller derivative that could also compete directly with the 777-9X, possibly with additional range and capacity.
However, any new product development initiative within Airbus faces extremely high hurdles. CEO Fabrice Bregier has sent a clear message to management that “we need to focus on incremental improvement of our products,” rather than going for all-new concepts.
Airbus states that it is “not planning to launch a new aircraft program for the next 10 years and the company focus is on incremental innovation, which means continuing to keep our current programs at the cutting-edge of technology in order to continue to deliver value to our customers. In parallel, we continuously carry out product development studies and perform research that covers all market segments, which can include long-term new aircraft concepts and shorter-term enhancements to current products. Examples of this include the regional and 242-tonne versions of the A330.”