July 29, 2013
Credit: Airbus/A. Doumenjou
Airbus has been quick to dismiss the merits of Boeing's new 787-10 since its launch at the Paris air show in June, a sure sign that the European airframer considers the new aircraft a serious competitor. Another sure sign is this: Airbus plans to launch a new A350 version to go head to head with the -10.
Although Airbus has been talking with individual airlines about what it is calling the A350-900 regional, and it says some have firmed up commitments already, it plans to formally offer the aircraft toward the end of this year. “[The airlines] have kept it quiet for awhile because they want to see how exactly we position it,” Airbus Chief Operating Officer-Customers John Leahy says. The -900 regional is going to be structurally identical to the baseline aircraft, but its engines will be derated to 75,000 lb. thrust, the same as those powering the smaller -800. The regional variant will also be limited to a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 250 tons, compared to 268 tons for the long-haul version.
Airbus is not saying when the aircraft will be ready for entry into service, but some certification work will be necessary. The baseline A350-900 has 92 flight-test hours behind it, following its June 14 first flight; it is to enter service in the second half of 2014.
Leahy himself has not kept quiet about the regional version's virtues, and he is hitting back hard at the 787-10. Given the 787 fleet grounding and recent incidents, he describes the competitor as “not reliable.” He argues that “what they have got is an architecture that is not mature and that eventually will become mature.” Boeing may have to redesign aircraft systems, he believes. “It is going to take a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of canceled flights,” he says.
The move to proceed with the A350-900 regional is not only significant as a reaction to the 787-10. It shows that Airbus is starting to pay more attention to customers that have quietly or publicly been complaining about what they describe as excessive range capabilities built into new long-haul aircraft, which are essentially only needed by the big three Persian Gulf carriers for services to the U.S. West Coast, Australia or Latin America. Such ranges are not needed by European, U.S. and even many Asian airlines.
The A350-900 regional can still easily fly most transatlantic missions and all medium- to long-haul services that would be typical of longer intra-Asian routes. It is also suited for Middle East-Europe and Middle East-Southeast Asia flights. And Airbus is not limiting its new focus on medium-haul widebodies to the A350. It also plans to offer a version of the A330 with a lower MTOW, primarily for intra-Asian routes, in an effort to make the aircraft as broadly usable as possible; it is developing another version with a 242-ton MTOW, making the aircraft a true long-haul jet.
Airbus and Boeing are both offering two aircraft families for the bulk of the long-haul market, the A330 and the A350 as well as the 777 and the 787. One interesting aspect of the competition is that Airbus is building an all-new aircraft for the larger-capacity segment of that market, while Boeing has decided to initially focus its innovation on the smaller-capacity end of it.