Airbus gave more clues at a briefing in Sydney today as  to what it will do when it eventually launches an all new design to replace its single aisle A320 program.

The jet will feature very wide open rotor engines mounted at the rear, and exploit new materials technology to shape a wider, more fluid looking cabin that will make boarding and disembarking a much more convenient and less time consuming process.

It will, as a consequence break free from the long and often tightly packed tubular experience of short haul single aisle flight that is experienced today, and which will continue to be the lot of air travellers in Airbus’s impending NEO or new engine option makeover of its standard A320 line-up as well as in Boeing’s 737 MAX program.

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But Airbus was facing certification, configuration and materials issues with this vision when the company decided to put it on hold in favor of the NEO upgrade according to the company’s executive vice president for programs, Tom Williams.

“We had to ask ourselves what step changes were required to have a large, totally ground breaking, and viable new design program, and when and how they could be delivered,” he said.

“If we wanted 60% or more step changes or improvements in a whole range of characteristics, we knew we needed time, engineering resources and as much certainty as possible of how the program would be accepted by the airlines.

“We knew for example that we would need very wide or open rotor engines as wide as the fuselage of an A320 today, so at the very least we were contemplating a triple configuration of two enormous engines and the fuselage, so that of course lead us to rear mounted engines, innovations in the cabin, and a number of certification and rule making issues such as blade failure protection,  ground clearance  and other matters. “

He said these certification and design questions were not compatible with quick answers, but the NEO program, featuring wide diameter new technology engines from either CFM or Pratt & Whitney, did provide compelling benefits in the immediate future, required less engineering resources, and gave airlines a 15% efficiency step change as an affordable option in a design that was already extensively used.

Williams mentioned but only in passing,  the mid 2020s as a possible time frame for a total new design. Airbus has elsewhere mentioned 2030 as being also a possible date for its introduction.

The latest guidance is that the first NEO A320s will be delivered in the fourth quarter of 2015 using the Pratt and Whitney geared turbo fan option, with the CFM Leap engine design available in the following year.

Those engine changes will be preceded  within several years by other structural and air frame improvements of which the wing tip ‘sharklets’ will be the most obvious.

The Airbus summary of the state of play between NEO and MAX

Williams expressed doubts about the state of the Boeing response to the A320 NEO program, describing the 737MAX line as ‘very much a paper plane’.

He drew particular attention to the MAX program’s limitations in terms of engine diameter, which is constrained by the ground hugging main gear architecture that has been a feature, and more recently, a draw back, in the 737 heritage.

“It will be interesting to see what Boeing does about this,” Williams said, leaving open the thought that further changes, and possibly delays, remain for that program.

Williams said  “We knew that the NEO or new engine programs and other improvements including sharklets with the existing family would in the time frame of  late 2015 onward drive very good demand,” he said.

“Efficiency gains of 15% in the near future are highly attractive,” he said. “We’ve proved that with the fastest selling  airliner program in history, with 1245 orders or commitments this year.”

(That total includes the 78 NEO order from the Qantas group, announced in August, but made officially firm today shortly after Williams gave his media and analyst briefing in Sydney this morning. )

He also said that there was widespread misunderstanding of the true size of A320 NEO market reach between now and 2030, which was the latest Airbus Global Market Forecast put at 14,800 contestable sales including the A320 standard line up in the next 18 years.

Airbus graphic of the spoils left for NEO versus MAX

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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