Airbus considers stretching A350-800

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Airbus is considering a larger version of its A350-800 as part of the strategy to counter the Boeing 787 in the 250- to 300-seat sector.

The -800 is currently pitched as a 276-seat airframe but the manufacturer is exploring the possibility of enlarging the twinjet – the shrunk version of its baseline A350-900.

Airbus has not logged any sales for the -800 since 2009 and it has been encouraging customers for the type to convert to the -900.

The -800 is designed to compete against the 787-9 but, at just over 60m (197ft), is more than 3m shorter than the A330-300, the aircraft it is intended to succeed.

Airbus chief operating officer for customers John Leahy insists that the lack of sales for the -800 is due to the company’s opting to extract higher value for initial slots by using them to deliver larger aircraft including the -900 and -1000.

He says he would “like to deliver [the -800] after the -1000”. The -800 has been scheduled for service entry in 2016, a year earlier than the -1000.

But the conversion of -800 customers to other types could effectively result in initial deliveries for the -800 being put back until after entry into service of the larger jet.

Leahy says the -800, whose backlog has fallen by two-thirds from its peak figure, is “not selling because we’re not selling it”.

But the type is aimed at the crucial 250- to 300-seat sector currently being addressed by the A330, and Leahy reveals that the airframer is looking at potential modification to the -800’s baseline specification.

This includes the “distinct possibility” of enlarging the aircraft, perhaps enough to accommodate an extra couple of seat rows, “to sit on top of the 787-9”, says Leahy. The 787-9, at 63m, is about the same length as the A330-300.

Leahy suggests that the critical battleground is leaning towards the 300-seat sector, rather than the 250-seat category of the smaller 787-8.

Airbus is still playing down the possibility of re-engining the A330 to compete in the field, although chief executive Fabrice Bregier says that re-engining is “always an option for our aircraft”.

He says the airframer has not put a proposal to airlines to re-engine the type – effectively following the A320neo strategy, to create an A330neo – but acknowledges that “some customers” have put the idea to Airbus.

“That doesn’t mean we implement every idea from our customers,” he says. Bregier adds that part of the A330’s attraction is its availability, and that a re-engined version would not be available in the same timeframe.

Leahy adds that General Electric, whose GEnx engine could potentially be used to re-engine the A330, is being “very aggressive” in putting proposals to the airframer, but suggests this is because the engine manufacturer is “surprised” that the A330 is “still going” even after the A350’s launch.

GE had been poised to power the original A350 – effectively a re-engined A330, before it was revamped as the current A350 XWB – but has not offered a powerplant for the current A350 range, leaving Rolls-Royce as the only engine option on the family.