How new is neo? As the Airbus A330neo took flight for the first time this week the company was quick to remind media, suppliers and customers that the new type is about more than just the engines. And in the face of questions about the current order book and the future of the line optimism was, unsurprisingly, the name of the game.
A Successful A330neo First Flight
The A330neo first flight departed slightly early on Thursday morning in Toulouse. I mean, it was months later than initially planned thanks to a variety of delays in engines and other components, but the plane lifted off at 9:57a local time, ahead of the 10a schedule as Airbus sought to avoid any potential weather challenges on an overcast day. The aircraft completed a four hour sortie over France before returning to Toulouse and a hero’s welcome. The usual platitudes were shared and the test pilots celebrated as they signed autographs for the gathered crowds.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) October 19, 2017
But for those gathered to witness a first flight most of the news has little to do with the flight itself. The plane took off and four hours later it landed; that’s not an especially compelling story. During that interim period, however, Airbus executives briefed the media on the product roadmap and what we should expect going forward. Given recent questions around the order book and sales potential this was a juicy opportunity.
Read More: A330neo First Flight Completed Successfully
Addressing the A330neo Order Book
With only 212 orders confirmed (and 72 of those considered soft) how does a company justify the massive investment in production of a new aircraft type? Crawford Hamilton, head of marketing for the A330 (including the A330neo) says it is all about versatility and hitting a sweet spot in the middle of the market.
Not only will the A330neo eventually be tapped to replace the aging A330ceo fleet, but market growth is key as well.
We know there’s going to be a wave of replacements coming soon. We’re very confident there.
Then there’s growth as well. You’ve got things like long-haul LCCs coming in to the market; the -800 and -900 works for both.
Key to the potential for the A330neo is its size. The A350XWB and 787s are too large, says Airbus, and the A321/737MAX are too small. Putting aside the part where the 787s are actually flying fitted with a comparable number of seats to what the A330neo will fly at, the A330 and the A330neo fit the middle-of-market space in size and range. Except that the configured range is much longer than what the middle market might demand. I’ve expressed concerns on that front in the past and did so again at the event. Hamilton doesn’t think the longer range capability limits the company’s ability to sell lots of them going forward:
What we’ve got is something that is utterly versatile. It can serve multiple missions with just one plane….It is, by its essence, a generalist in service.
Hamilton continued, explaining that the operating costs of the A330s are such that the costs play out well on 2, 6, 10 or 12 hour flights, not just one subset of the range. And he believes the type is somewhat unique in that capacity, a feature that will extend to the A330neo as well.
No Regional Required
That versatility also plays in to the decision to skip a “Regional” model with reduced range and the associated reduction is aircraft weight and operating costs. The A330 regional exists but thus far (and much to my surprise) has proven to be a very niche player. Hamilton believes the same course will play out for the A330neo, noting that the regional version can be easily converted to a long-range model.
It is not a specific design. It is us tuning the base design specifically for regional [operations]. We are capable of doing the same thing on the neo as well. We’ll move where our customers want to go.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest design news confirmed during the event is that a 251t model – heavier and with even greater range – is in the works, expected at the end of the decade.
Read More: Second guessing the A330neo
The long-haul LCC market could be key to such demand, as point-to-point service grows and more city pairs are to be connected at greater ranges. The 787 works well in that space today and Airbus undoubtedly wants more of that market, too.
n.b. – Airbus covered my airfare and hotel expenses to attend the events in Toulouse this week.
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