On the first day of the Farnborough Air Show Monday, Airbus answered all the big strategic questions hanging over its widebody jet line-up.
As expected, the European jetmaker launched a new model of its A330 mid-size widebody jet, the A330neo. Predictably, sales chief John Leahy made confident claims that it will best Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
More surprisingly, Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier at the press conference here gave clear, firm answers to the other two outstanding strategic issues.
Airbus’s widebody jet line-up, like Boeing’s, is now firmly set.
Yes to an A330neo, with an investment of between $1.4 billion and $2.7 billion. Consequently, the similar-sized A350-800 model that wasn’t selling will fade away.
In addition, Bregier gave a definite no to any near-term re-engining of the A380 superjumbo, which Gulf carrier Emirates had requested.
And more importantly for the rivalry with Boeing, Bregier said Airbus will not launch a new larger widebody with 400+ seats to go head-to-head with the 777-9X.
Bregier denied that there is any hole at the larger end of Airbus’s widebody twinjets, where Boeing now offers the new 407-seat 777-9X.
Airbus’s largest twinjet is the 369-seat A350-1000. There had been speculation that Airbus would launch a larger A350-1100 to go head-to-head with the 777-9X. But Bregier said no.
“We are very happy with these four members: the A330-800neo, the A330-900neo, the A350-900 and the A350-1000,” Bregier said. “I don’t think there is any hole at all … We cover from 250 to 370 passengers.”
“The gap between the A350-1000 and the 777X is much smaller than you could imagine when we compare apples to apples,” Bregier added. “I don’t believe we need to launch any other member of the A350 family.”
Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Ray Conner, interviewed shortly after the A330neo launch, said he wasn’t surprised at the Airbus decision not to invest in development of a rival jet to the 777-9X.
“They probably have a lot on their plate,” Conner said. “They’ll try to just get by with what they have.”
“Their line-up is set. That’s terrific,” he added. “Now we can get on with it.”
The new A330neo
The A330neo launched Monday comes in two versions, the A330-900neo with up to 310 seats and the A330-800neo with up to 252 seats. Each has ten more seats than the current A330, acheived by moving around galleys, lavatories and crew rests to create space.
Each model features new fuel-efficient engines from Rolls-Royce based on the engines that power the 787 Dreamliner. It has winglets and an extra 6 feet extension on each wing to improve the aerodynamics.
Sales chief Leahy claimed that with these enhancements the new A330neo will match the 787 on performance and beat it on cost of operation.
Steve Udvar-Hazy, the chief executive of Air Lease Corp. (ALC) and a figure whose views carry great weight in the industry, voted with his checkbook Monday.
At an Air Show press conference announcing that he would be Airbus’s A330neo launch customer with an order for 25 of the widebody jets, Udvar-Hazy said the plane will be very successful in the medium range segment, which covers 70 to 80 percent of the routes flown by widebodies.
The other 20 to 30 percent of routes require more long-range airplanes such as the Airbus A350-900 or the Boeing 787-9. The implication is that only ultra-long haul carriers need those much more expensive airplanes.
ALC president John Plueger pointed to the “compelling price difference between this A330neo and any other widebody.” And Udvar-Hazy said he doesn’t believe Boeing “can close the pricing gap in any significant fashion.”
Leahy claims the A330neo will have similar seat capacity to the 787, equivalent fuel efficiency, longer range in the case of the smaller versions of each jet, and much lower maintenance costs and purchase price, all adding up to a 7 percent lower ownership cost for an airline customer.
Scott Hamilton, an industry anlayst with Leeham.net, said “some of that is marketing but a lot is real.”
He said the 12 percent fuel efficiency gain per trip claimed by Leahy over the current A330 is likely achievable “on the longer haul 8-to10-hour transatlantic and intra-Asia networks.”
Boeing’s Conner vehemently rejected Leahy’s claims.
“He can say whatever he wants,” said Conner. “I don’t want to give it the time of day. There comes a certain point in time when engineering physics has to come into play. The physics right now don’t support that.”
David Joyce, president of GE Aviation, also has a side in this competition. GE is the exclusive engine provider on Boeing’s 777X and its more powerful GEnx engine has established a lead over rival Rolls-Royce’s Trent engine in 787 Dreamliner market share, supplying 62 percent of 787 engines overall.
After discussions with both GE and Rolls, Airbus chose to go with the Rolls’s Trent as the sole engine for the A330neo.
“We’ll go head-to-head against it with the 787-10,” said Joyce. “We’re ready to go. let’s go.”