With little ceremony and no flashy special livery, an enhanced A330-300 has made a first flight at Toulouse that brings a new option into play in the medium sized wide body market where both Airbus and Boeing save most of their ceremonial flourishes for their all new A350 and Dreamliner 787 lines.
This particular A330, a slightly heavier 242 tonnes version of the larger -300 model, will be delivered to Delta Airlines before the middle of the year, to add to its existing fleet of the type which it mainly flies on North Atlantic routes. A 242 tonne evolution of the shorter fuselage but longer ranging A330-200 will be ready for service from early 2016.
The A330 has already exceeded Airbus’s own earlier predictions for its commercial life. The type first went into service with Air Inter (which was folded into Air France) in 1994 and the European consortium predicted, until well into this century, that it would be replaced by the A350, the new high composite structure twin engined jet that makes it first commercial flight tomorrow Wednesday for launch customer Qatar Airways on the Doha-Frankfurt route.
However the A350s are inherently higher capacity airliners (and how much higher probably depends on just how squeezy they end up in this new age of passenger discomfort) so instead of replacing the A330s they have been pitched at taking on higher capacity versions of the 787, and even replacing Boeing 777-300ERs when it comes to the stretched A350-1000.
The 242 tonne A330s can replace existing older models of their own type, saving on fuel and maintenance costs, and compete with 787-8s and -9s, as will the separate and ultimate versions of the A330 family, the A330 NEOs, which will come along from 2018 with new tech engines and a modified wing.
These developments make the matrix of purchase options for airlines seeking wide body medium sized jets for either replacement or expansion more complex than envisaged even two years ago, with a 787-10 coming along by 2019, and the clearest of hints from Airbus that there will be an A350-1100 to follow that, which will also take on the next series of the Boeing 777 family, the X series, due to arrive from late 2020 or early 2021.
And you thought ordering coffee at Starbucks was daunting!
Among large established A330 customers, Delta is buying 242 tonne versions, as well as A330 NEOs and A350s, but Qatar is following the opposite path, and buying only the A350s, and in large numbers.
The strategy of focusing on incremental improvements of existing lines has taken root at Airbus and Boeing in a big way. Both makers are racking up massive orders for new technology engine versions of the single aisle A320 and 737 families. Airbus now shows every sign of putting new tech engines on its giant, and perhaps further upsized A380s, from early in the next decade, while Boeing has won massive support for its much evolved 777-X series.
However if anyone had suggested only a few years ago that the 2020s would see both airliner makers racking up big orders for improved versions of designs that date back to the late 60s through to the early 90s they would have been considered very odd, to say the least.