A320 LeapX

It has been an incredibly long game of poker between Airbus and Boeing over the question of whether to re-engine their cash cow single aisle jets, the A320 and 737NG families respectively, or go directly to an all-new design in the 2020s.

But to mangle metaphors, Boeing hasn’t, at least at this hour, shown its hand even though the Airbus Fat Lady A320 (rendered above) has sung, which is impolite in high stakes poker to say the least.

From around April 2016 Airbus says its A319s, A320s and A321s will be optionally available with new high tech, and higher efficiency engines, the LEAP-X powerplant from the Franco-American CFM International consortium that makes all the current series 737 engines, or the Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW110OG.

These engines are quite different from each other and from anything hanging off wings today, but they promise similar improvements in lower fuel burn and reduced emissions and maintenance costs, and they are, well, very fat looking objects.

So much so they will not fit under the wing of a 737 without the increasing of  the height of the undercarriage, or adjusting the wing, or both, and these are expensive and complex things to do which Airbus doesn’t have to do with the A320s, which already have the required higher ground clearance.

Which is why Boeing kept sending signals about how it would go directly to an all new model, but maybe not, but would also definitely do a re-engining of the existing model, but wouldn’t, or might, depending on the time of day or whichever answer was considered more likely to mess with minds over in Airbus.

If it was a bluff it didn’t work. Airbus says it doesn’t want to do an all-new design until the mid 2020s, when materials technology will, it says, allow it to do really flash things.

Boeing says it can do an all new single aisle family much sooner. Good luck selling that line to airlines that ordered Dreamliners for 2008 delivery!

The launch of the Fat Lady A320 (with sharklet wing tips also available on the existing thin lady A320s from 2012) does pose exquisite dilemmas for carriers with large fleets of older single aisle jets from either manufacturer.

By 2016 for example the big 737 users in Australia, Qantas and Virgin Blue may well be ready to replace significant numbers of them, or roll over existing leases for new units or better terms. Not to mention better residuals and book values, which in the case of older engine type single aisle jets will be toast.

How many such ‘renewals’ might make it worth replacing 737s with A320NEOs or New Engine Option models as Airbus officially calls the fat engined ones? Twenty, thirty? No-one knows yet, but if the cost saving really is in the order of 15% or more compared to currently engined jets there will be temptation.

Similarly the existing A320 family operators in the neighbourhood, Jetstar, Tiger, Air NZ and nearby, AirAsia, may all find replacing some of their existing fleets with the NEO versions irresistible, even if they are hanging out for the all-new types likely from around 2024 or 2025.

Let’s see what card Boeing plays next. There is another fat lady waiting to sing, … maybe.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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