Airbus A330 improvement a win for caution over innovation
Airbus follows Boeing with a new found caution toward new airliner projects this week, with a minor yet useful upgrade to the capabilities of its A330s.
For those who look forward to new airliner designs taking flight, this is a disappointing but ‘sensible’ week, with Airbus following Boeing’s caution over the 777-x and the 787-10 proposals with a minor but lucrative upgrade to its A330s.
But the rival manufacturers have what appear to be very sound strategic reasons for their actions.
They even seem to be in a race to be second when it comes to new 350-400 passenger twin engined airliner designs.
The news about the 787-10, the second stretch of the current 787-8 after the hopefully imminent 787-9, has already been reported here.
A later and very detailed analysis of Boeing’s plans on Aspire Aviation, also discusses an upgrade to Boeing’s highly successful 777-300ER, dubbed the -300ER+, with a valuable 4.5% improvement in fuel efficiency, which signals a likely relegation, even further into the future, of the debate between Boeing and Emirates as to just how it should proceed with a more ambitious 777-X makeover.
The strategic benefits to Boeing are considerable. It gives the current 777 program continuing relevance (despite whatever Qantas says) with minimal development costs, and it gives Boeing more time in which to see just what the delayed Airbus A350 program can achieve, and thus what it has to best, when it offers the very substantial performance improvements of the 777-X remake.
The A330 upgrade announced today is however not good news for the 787-8, and possibly a dampener for the -9, depending on just how good that jet proves to be.
Qantas flies both A330-300s and A330-200s, some of which are being returned by Jetstar for further domestic flying duties, and as Plane Talking was told personally by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce this week, are destined to get completely new domestic and international business class products.
Virgin Australia flies only A330-200s, and Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are the major foreign flag carriers using the -300 version on routes to Australia, because when it comes to flights of around 8-9 hours duration, there is no other airliner that is as efficient at carrying around 250-300 passengers per traffic slot.
Airbus is upgrading the A330-300s by using a hitherto vacant space in the central wing area for fuel, something already done in the -200s, but which also benefit from an increased maximum takeoff weight to the extent that the latter now would seem capable of viable non-stop services between Sydney and Los Angeles, something Jetstar isn’t expected to be able to do with a high density 787-8 as originally intended, or at the very least, as soon as intended.
This is how Airbus summarises the changes:
Airbus has improved the A330-300 and A330-200 even further by providing operators both with a 242 metric tonne maximum take-off weight (MTOW) capability and, for the larger A330-300, an increased fuel capacity option. These enhancements build on the capability announced earlier this year for an increased 240 tonne MTOW, and will be available for operators in 2015.
The new take-off weight capability combined with the fuel capacity increase enables operators of these new A330-300s to carry additional payload on longer missions. Overall, the full payload range now increases by around 500nm over today’s 235 tonne A330-300, and by around 350nm over today’s 238 tonne A330-200.
The A330-300’s optional fuel capacity increase will be achieved by activating the centre wing tank for the first time on this model. The centre tank and its associated systems have always been present as standard on its longer-range sibling – the A330-200. The additional fuel capacity for the A330-300 allows operators to fly new longer distance routes, such as direct flights between South-East Asia and Europe. For example, it will permit westbound direct flights such as Kuala Lumpur to Frankfurt or Paris, with the ability to carry additional cargo on the eastbound return flight.
The chiller for those looking toward the A350 introduction in this is that the improvement not only competes with the 787 at some levels, but the all new high composite component 350 passenger sized Airbus now rescheduled to begin flight testing around the middle of next year.
And the A350s are late, and according to some reports, overweight. Like Boeing, Airbus seems to have found that delivering the structural and efficiency benefits of composites to the pressure-cycle sensitive fuselages of an airliner is much more challenging than than had been recognised during the ‘promotional phases’ of their respective plastic fantastics airliner projects.
Earlier this year Airbus ruled out adding new engine options to the A330 airframes the way it is doing with the A320 family and Boeing is doing with the 737 MAX series. But it didn’t say ‘forever’. With Boeing turning to the merits of new technology engines or other refinements to keep the 777s well clear of the early A350s, it would be fair to speculate that the temptation for Airbus to re-engine the A330s to gain even more advantages over the 787 while it also pushes its A350s further in the future will remain a consideration.
Which is not what some of us may have wanted to see. Instead of the two giants racing each other to be the first with the newest, they could end up, when it comes to the 777-X and the A350-1000, walking toward the finish line saying ‘No, you go first ‘.