Airbus Raises Stakes with Launch of A320neo

Airbus claims its A320neo will offer as much as a 15-percent fuel burn improvement over the standard A320 family.

Airbus’s launch last week of a new engine option for its A320 single-aisle series has for the moment turned the proverbial spotlight directly on rival Boeing and its own line of narrowbodies. Indeed, the competitive implications of re-engining the 737–or not–now appear unequivocal. If Boeing chooses not to follow suit with the 737, by 2016 the new line of A320s, dubbed the A320neo, could hold a double-digit fuel burn advantage over the Boeing product. Granted, the airplane will cost some $6 million more than the standard A320s, but Airbus apparently feels it has received enough positive feedback from potential airline customers to justify the project’s more than €1 billion ($1.3 billion) development cost.

No matter what Airbus ultimately spends on the new product, the move poses something of a dilemma for Boeing. Just this week, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh told London’s Financial Times that the company still could not see “a compelling reason” to re-engine the 737. Albaugh’s comments mirrored the sentiments expressed by Boeing chairman and CEO Jim McNerney and CFO James Bell, both of whom have said that the company’s customers would rather wait perhaps another four years for a completely new airplane design, largely because Boeing’s calculations show that neither the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G nor the CFM Leap-X–the engines chosen to power the A320neo–could deliver double-digit fuel savings on the existing 737 airframe. Further complicating matters for Boeing, the 737’s engines hang closer to the ground than the A320’s, requiring a redesign of at least the landing gear and considerably more development investment.

Airbus, on the other hand, considers the A320neo’s development cost modest, judging by comments made by company COO for customers John Leahy. Meanwhile, the European company asserts that engine and airframe technology won’t progress far enough to justify launching development of a new single-aisle design before 2020, meaning such an airplane wouldn’t reach the market until 2025. That nine-year gap between the introduction of the new engine option and an entirely new narrowbody will prove wide enough to sell as many as 4,000 A320neos, in Airbus’s estimation.

Boeing, however, could shrink that gap to four years, if, as it asserts, it can ready a completely clean-sheet design for delivery by the end of the decade. In the meantime, it continues work on aerodynamic improvements to the existing 737 that it expects to result in another 2-percent gain in fuel efficiency. Changes include a more aerodynamically contoured anti-collision light on both the top and bottom of the fuselage and a re-contour of the ski jump fairing on the aft side of the wheel well. The ECS ram-air ducts will also see a change, employing the louvered-style doors used on the 777. Modifications under way to areas of the upper wing include a redesign of the trailing edge of the slats and spoilers that smoothes the interface between the slat and the wing surface. Finally, Boeing expects a new version of the CFM56 engine with a shortened nozzle to deliver a fuel-burn improvement of roughly four-tenths of 1 percent.

Of course, Airbus expects its $1.3 billion investment in the A320neo to yield far more benefit than Boeing can offer with its latest incremental improvements to the 737. The company claims the A320neo will deliver fuel savings over the standard A320 of up to 15 percent, a “double-digit” reduction in NOx emissions, less engine noise, lower operating costs and either a range improvement of 500 nm or a payload increase of two metric tons. The A320neo’s so-called sharklet wingtip devices, the first of which Airbus plans to fit on standard A320s for delivery starting near the end of 2012, will account for at least 3.5 percent fuel burn savings over long sectors, according to the company.

The formal introduction of the A320neo comes some 10 months after Airbus COO for customers John Leahy publicly targeted the Farnborough Air Show as the venue for a possible launch announcement. After the show came and went without a decision from Airbus, the target shifted to early this past fall. Again, Airbus demurred, citing the need for a more precise estimate of the engineering resources it could dedicate to the project.

“Finding the necessary resources for the A320neo wasn’t exactly a walk in the park,” said Airbus president and CEO Tom Enders. “The enabler was to devise a stringent phasing of critical engineering assets throughout our various development programs and to optimize the management and organization of all our programs and R&T projects. Our international engineering centers, suppliers and partners play a big role in this.”
Airbus has decided not to offer the new engine option on the smallest member of the A320 series–the slow selling A318. The new engine option will require limited modifications to the other three models, primarily to the wing and pylon areas, said Airbus. The A320neo will maintain 95 percent airframe commonality with the standard A320 series, the company added.

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