Airbus accelerates A320neo programme

Airbus has brought its re-engined A320neo programme forward by six months, while claiming that the technology required to justify an all-new single-aisle design will not be available until at least 2030. Ian Goold reports from Toulouse. Formally launched by Airbus last December, the A320neo (for ‘New Engine Option’) programme has been accelerated by six months. The European manufacturer now plans to certificate and deliver the latest variant of its best-selling single-aisle family in October 2015, instead of the second quarter of 2016 as previously scheduled.

11th May 2011


Airbus accelerates A320neo programme

Airbus has brought its re-engined A320neo programme forward by six months, while claiming that the technology required to justify an all-new single-aisle design will not be available until at least 2030. Ian Goold reports from Toulouse.

 

Formally launched by Airbus last December, the A320neo (for ‘New Engine Option’) programme has been accelerated by six months. The European manufacturer now plans to certificate and deliver the latest variant of its best-selling single-aisle family in October 2015, instead of the second quarter of 2016 as previously scheduled.

Airbus has also confirmed the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G geared turbofan (GTF) engine as the lead development powerplant for the new model, for which the manufacturer had already collected over 330 orders and commitments by early April. The company claims the re-engined aircraft will offer a 15 percent improvement in fuel efficiency compared with current A320 models.

Airbus Chief Operating Officer (Customers) John Leahy said that the A320neo has become "the fastest-selling aircraft in history," and that Airbus will have accrued "over 500 commitments" by the time the global industry gathers at June's Paris air show. As of April, he said Airbus was "a week or two" away from closing deals with prospective customers in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and Latin America.

Equivalent neo variants of the shrunk A319 and stretched A321 models are each expected to account for an initial 25 percent share of the market, with the baseline A320neo taking half of the orders. Airbus has acknowledged that this three-way division might change over time as the programme matures. Currently, the manufacturer sees no ready market demand for a re-engined version of the small A318, which Airbus Executive Vice-President (Programmes) Tom Williams sees as a "niche product".

 Increased lead

Apart from putting the aircraft in operators' hands earlier, the revised entry-into-service (EIS) target date for the A320neo has the effect of increasing the European manufacturer’s lead over whatever Boeing decides to do in response.

For its part, the US manufacturer has long proclaimed that it does not compete against – far less copy – Airbus products, but that it simply tries to meet the demands of the market. By late April, it remained unclear when Boeing would decide whether to re-engine its 737 or proceed directly to an all-new single-aisle design.

Five or more years ago, when the world was beginning to speculate about a successor to the A320 and 737 programmes, the airframe manufacturers were talking of a market that could emerge for a new design in the early years of this decade. Engine makers reacted in horror, saying that new technologies permitting increased efficiency and enhanced environmental performance would not be available before 2015 at the earliest.

Since then, such projections have moved further and further into the future, with Leahy proclaiming in early 2010 that the time would not be ripe for an all-new aircraft until at least 2022, or even later. The potential timing for an ‘A30X’, which would incorporate a package of advanced engine, materials, and systems technologies, has slipped ever more to the right.

Most recently, Leahy's view of technological developments has led him to look beyond 2025 until, at a technical briefing in Toulouse in April, he confidently predicted 2030 or even 2035 as the right time. A principal element of Leahy's picture of an aircraft for the 2030s is the development of new, much more efficient open-rotor (OR) engines.

Such a schedule would provide the very popular current A320 design with a potential manufacturing "life" of more than 40 years: "the longest continuous production run in history", claims Leahy.

 Boeing rivalry

To be sure, Leahy’s statements must be seen in the context of Airbus’s rivalry with Boeing. The executive’s previous remarks about post-2020 timing seemed designed to imply that anything Boeing offered before that date would be compromised because better technology would be just around the corner.

Indeed, some analysts see the latest statements as an effort to goad Boeing, the US manufacturer’s determination not to respond directly to the European manufacturer’s moves notwithstanding.

If Boeing were now to proceed with an early, all-new design, Leahy implies it would not be able to offer sufficient performance improvements to justify its development costs. Boeing can, of course, counter that the A320neo is simply a compromise that does not offer much improvement over the current aircraft.

Leahy famously predicted a year ago that if Airbus launched the A320NEO by the end of 2010 then Boeing would proceed with a clean-sheet product in response. For now, the ball is in Boeing's court. Speculation is rife that the US manufacturer may announce plans as early as this year’s Paris air show for a new 737/757-replacement programme.

Leahy, however, now predicts that Boeing will ultimately be forced to defer any such plans because of the lack of available technology, and will opt to re-engine the 737.

In April, an investor's note from New York investment bank Buckingham Research (which has a reputation for accurately predicting Boeing's actions) revealed it had changed its mind about the possibility of a new single-aisle design being unveiled at Le Bourget. "We do not believe Boeing will announce a new airplane at the show," the bank said.

Buckingham suggested that Boeing salesmen will not be given approval to offer a new design to the marketplace for perhaps 18-24 months. However, that would not block the US manufacturer from revealing a clean-sheet design at Paris with the aim of overshadowing any Airbus announcement of further A320neo orders.

Leahy has pointed out that Boeing previously trumpeted new designs that never saw the light of day, citing the examples of the 7J7 – offered in September 1985 for service within "2,500 days", but delayed "indefinitely" 27 months later in favour of the Next-Generation 737 – and the sleek ‘Sonic Cruiser’ – which grabbed headlines for 21 months before being dropped in favour of the much more conventional 787.

For its part, alongside preparations for A320neo production, Airbus is continuing to develop the current aircraft. On top of the previously announced "sharklet" wingtips, further long-term system enhancements are planned for the A320 over the next two years.

 Electronic flight-bag

The first offering is an electronic flight-bag option that allows flight crews to plug any of a variety of laptop computers into a docking station. A320-family Chief Engineer Wolfgang Engler says the development will permit exchanges of information between aircraft and computer and should be available for introduction before July.

Another enhancement to be offered from 2013 is an on-board airport navigation system (OANS), designed to help pilots find their way while taxiing between terminals and runways. The system shows a moving map of the airport on the A320's navigation display.

The A380's runway-overrun prevention system (ROPS) is being adapted for the single-aisle fleet in a similar time frame. The ROPS alerts flight-crew when it calculates there is insufficient runway length for an attempted landing and aims to help crews make ‘go-around’ decisions.

Other A380 technology that will be applied to the A320 series includes the autopilot/flight director traffic-alert and collision-avoidance system. The system is designed to offer precise visual cues to prompt correct responses to an alert, since studies have shown that audio cues are often followed by pilots taking the wrong action in response to a traffic conflict.

Airbus is not allowing A320 customers to convert existing orders to the re-engined variant, despite hopes expressed by Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia. The airline has deferred A320 deliveries and spoken publicly about its desire to switch some of its existing orders to the neo variant, perhaps hoping to influence Airbus via newspaper headlines.

Leahy said introducing such flexibility would create “too much confusion". Airbus "needs to know" the likely production split as it begins manufacturing of the new variant. Allowing customers to switch existing orders would effectively permit them to occupy two production slots – "and we're not going to do that", Leahy said. Equally, Airbus is not about to let the new model "cannibalise the backlog", according to Williams.

German carrier Lufthansa has selected the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G to power the 25 A320neos and five A321neos it expects to begin receiving in 2016 (but which still required "contract closure with Airbus" as of early April, according to the engine maker). The choice has confirmed the GTF engine as the programme's lead powerplant, competing against CFM International’s Leap-X design.

"We are very pleased with the improved fuel efficiency, noise reduction, and environmental benefits of the A320neo with the PW1100G," said Nico Buchholz, Lufthansa Group’s executive vice-president for fleet management. "We are convinced [it] will deliver significant benefits."

India's Indigo Airlines was the first operator to select the GTF when it announced plans to acquire up to 150 of the aircraft. As of late April, no engine selection had been announced for almost 100 A320neos ordered by TAM (22 aircraft), Virgin America (30) and International Lease Finance Corporation (40).

Airbus optimism

Leahy is bullish about the manufacturer's chances of having at least 500 "commitments" by the Paris air show in June. One potential candidate for a show announcement is Russia’s Aeroflot, which has confirmed it is considering the A320neo. The airline’s Chief Executive Vitaly Saveliev told French daily newspaper La Tribune: "It could be that we'll make some orders at Le Bourget."

Meanwhile, Scandinavia's SAS has eliminated the Bombardier’s rival CSeries jetliner out of its short-term fleet-modernisation studies. Following a broad restructuring of its operations, SAS is retiring MD-80s and older Boeing 737s. A320neos could be included in its plan, complemented by leased Boeing 737-800s.

Closer to the manufacturer's Toulouse home, European carrier Air France-KLM – the only operator of all A320-series models – has confirmed its interest in the programme, saying it is talking with Airbus and both engine manufacturers.

Typically, Leahy has expressed firm belief in worldwide demand for re-engined narrowbodies. “The market wants the re-engined A320 – and probably a re-engined 737, as well,” he said.

 


 

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