Airbus has been lukewarm about reengining the A330 along the lines of the A320neo, even though many industry pundits believe such a step has merit. Now some high-level sources are saying the decision to proceed could be imminent.
With a total of 1,313 firm orders until the end of 2013, the A330 is by far the most successful widebody Airbus has built. That figure compares to 816 for the A300/A310 family, 812 for the A350, 377 for the A340 and 304 units for the A380. And even after Boeing launched the competing 787, the A330 continues to have remarkable market success: Airbus sold 534 A330s during the past five years; most were the larger A330-300.
There are two main factors behind why the murmuring about new engines for the A330 continues, in spite of Airbus’s best efforts. The first is that AirAsia X has been very vocal about the change up. The airline represents a new business model, similar to Jetstar’s introducing the low-fare concept (or an adapted version of it) to medium- and long-haul flying. Of course, the carrier has just ordered 25 more of the current A330s, which indicates its allegiance to that type too.
The second factor is the wider acceptance of installing a new engine underneath the wing of long-proven aircraft. Airlines and other industry-related entities are comfortable with the idea. The A320neo has been a resounding success; 2,600 have been ordered since it was launched. The Boeing 737 MAX is not quite there yet in terms of massive numbers of orders, but it too looks like a winner. And the concept has now been transferred to smaller jets on Embraer’s E2s, the next generation of the 175/190/195-family. And long-haul aircraft seem to be following suit; Boeing’s recently launched 777X will have new powerplants.
In fact, Emirates President Tim Clark has been lobbying for the reengining of the A380, saying: “It does not make sense” to have all other widebodies benefit from new engine technology, but not the A380.
The A380 actually is not the only aircraft stalled at that uneasy deciding point—the A330 (and the 767) are other current widebodies that can be seen as using what is quickly becoming outdated engine technology. Most operators will categorize the A380 as an extremely well-done, efficient machine that has one key disadvantage: fuel burn. With competing aircraft becoming more efficient, this is a big caveat.
Airlines are already coming to Airbus, as CEO Fabrice Bregier confirms, to escalate the reengining process. Even Airbus chief operating officer for customers, John Leahy, admits that the A330 has an average 10-12% fuel-burn disadvantage over the 787, but he notes that it benefits from lower capital expenditure required—it is simply cheaper to buy. Therefore, Leahy argues, the aircraft is very competitive. In a recent interview he said: “The current A330 is selling very well. The market understands that we are investing in this product family by both extending the range but also developing a regional version. Its economics are unbeatable today, so it is not obvious that we should propose a reengine.”
However, a senior executive at a large A330 operator offers another view: He sees the current A330 as “a very good base,” but says that a new engine would lead to a 7-8% fuel burn improvement if one factors in higher engine weight. That aircraft would have the potential to exceed 787-9 economics, he argues. It would also raise the question of why Airbus would still want to build the A350-800 in whatever shape or form.
This executive points out that Airbus could sell the aircraft as a low-risk proposal because much of it—even the engines—are well down the industrial learning curve. It would also likely appeal to a broader market by embracing smaller operators that do not require the longer-range capabilities of a smaller A350 derivative. Airbus no longer seems to be fundamentally opposed to the A330 reengining idea, but executive vice president of programs, Tom Williams, says he would like to see the latest 242-ton version in service before making that decision. The first aircraft is scheduled to be delivered to Delta Air Lines in mid-2015.
While the current backlog of 267 aircraft is not yet reason for concern, Airbus is producing the A330 at a high rate (10 per month). At the current rate, this would in theory extend production into 2016. Over the past two years, the manufacturer has delivered more aircraft than it has sold. And while it took in 99 new orders in 2011, the number dropped to 77 last year. It is probably too soon to label this a negative trend, but it would be only natural that the imminent introduction of the stretched 787-9 would affect new A330 orders.