Airbus this year is facing crucial decisions that will determine the shape of its widebody product line and could have a lasting impact on engine manufacturers. Changes could include an earlier-than-expected return of Pratt & Whitney as an independent player in the long-haul aircraft market.
The European manufacturer is facing increasingly pressing questions about all its long-haul aircraft: It will have to decide whether to reengine the A330, how to improve the A380 and where it is taking the A350 family. At the same time, R&D budgets are being reduced to more sustainable levels now that A350 efforts have peaked. “You have to look at the big picture. We are not going to keep investing at the same level,” says executive vice president of programs Tom Williams.
Airbus’s choices will affect the fate of other programs. The company is wary of having to work through two major modification programs at the same time. An upgraded A330 could also cannibalize the A350-800. The most pressing issue is whether to reengine the A330. “We have to make the A330 decision this year,” Williams makes clear. He believes the life of the current A330 can be extended to about 2018 at today’s rate of 10 aircraft per month. Airbus’s backlog of 255 aircraft would fill production capacity until 2016, and given continuing demand it is confident it can extend production by about two more years until a major upgrade would arrive.
Initiatives to make the current aircraft more attractive in the short term include the new 242-ton version that extends range further and will be available from around mid-2015 as well as the new regional variant. While the increased maximum-takeoff-weight (MTOW) version will enter service with Delta Air Lines next year, the A330 Regional is mainly geared toward the domestic market in China.
Making a reengined A330 available by 2018 or 2019 would require 2-3 years of upfront development work. Williams says “the business case is more difficult than the A320neo.” Because the expected number of aircraft is much smaller, the return on investment has to be achieved more quickly. “We would also be launching into a crowded space,” he points out, referring to the Boeing 787 and, to a degree, the A350.
Williams also says that within the scope of A330 operations not all missions would lend themselves for reengining. Ultra-longhaul transpacific flights are likely to remain the domain of the A350 or Boeing 787s and 777s, while the A330 would benefit from more engine efficiency in medium- and long-haul operations of up to 12 hr. On the other end of the spectrum, as with the A320neo or Boeing 737 MAX, the benefit of more efficiency below a certain threshold becomes more limited because the cruise portion of the flight is so short. The proposed A330neo would be a heavier aircraft and that would potentially penalize short-haul operations—the market segment Airbus has been pushing into recently to capture a larger share of Chinese domestic services. Airline industry sources believe the reengined A330 could reach an average fuel burn advantage of 8% over the existing model. “There are some complicated trade-offs to consider,” Williams says.
While engine choice would be ideal from a sales perspective, Williams is pushing internally for an exclusivity deal. “Having two different engines may be difficult to justify, you always have to keep non-recurring costs in mind,” he points out. Changes to pylons and nacelles would have to be designed twice, and separate certification programs would add to costs, too. But if Airbus decides to go ahead with the proposal, it opens the door for what could become a serious reshuffling in the engine market. This may not only affect the A330, but ultimately also the A380, which Emirates also wants to be reengined.
Williams does not see a common new engine for the A330 and A380 as the optimal solution. Concerns include the sizing of the core and overall architecture, as well as weight. “It really does not make much sense,” he believes. He says Pratt & Whitney “is very interested” to offer a geared turbofan engine, while Rolls-Royce and General Electric (GE) could offer bleed versions of the Trent 1000 and the GEnx-1B, respectively.
Pratt’s surprise appearance as a potential A330neo engine provider offers the intriguing possibility of a shake-up in today’s big fan business—effectively a duopoly between GE and Rolls. With slim prospects for the development of any other all-new widebody this decade, the A330neo and reengined A380 could offer Pratt its only opportunity to evolve the PW1000G GTF into a higher-thrust family of engines for twin-aisle applications.