Airbus A330-300 aircraft by increasing its maximum take-off weight (MTOW)

When European plane-maker Airbus gave indication in late January that it was considering an update to its Airbus A330-300 aircraft by increasing its maximum take-off weight (MTOW) amongst other enhancements, it represented the first step in a process designed to rejuvenate Airbus’ A330 line of aircraft and propagate its production into the next decade.

For the medium term, Airbus is mulling a number of improvements to the larger Airbus A330-300 variant, which seats 335 passengers in a typical 2-class configuration. The aircraft would see an MTOW increase of 5 tonnes to 240 tonnes, which would increase the aircraft’s range by 400 nautical miles (nm).  Blended wingtips, or as Airbus calls them, sharklets, are also being studied for the Airbus A330-300, which currently has more diminished wingtip fences. Sharklets would reduce the fuel burn of new-build A330-300s by an additional 1%-2%, though Airbus chief operating officer (COO) customers John Leahy told flightglobal that the sharklet testing on Airbus A320 aircraft was yielding fuel burn reduction of greater than the design figure of 3.4%, which would further increase the fuel savings.

However, successful implementation of sharklet technology will first require that Airbus settle its legal dispute with famed Seattle-based aviation technology firm Aviation Partners International (API). API has had a patent on blended winglet devices since 1993-94, which is due to expire within a year and a half, and its winglets have been implemented successfully on aircraft from numerous aircraft manufacturers, including Boeing’s 737NG (Next-Generation) aircraft family, where they yielded a 4%-6% decrease in block fuel burn. According to API, Airbus had entered into discussions to use a modified version of its blended winglets on the Airbus A320 family of aircraft. However, API claims that despite satisfactory performance by its winglets, Airbus instead chose to develop its own winglet in-house and even filed for a patent for the “sharklet” as a device distinct from API’s winglet. Thus API thinks that Airbus must pay it royalties for the usage of the winglet device for the 10-12 months overlap of sharklet-equipped A320s before the expiration of API’s patent, or at the very least that Airbus be precluded from patenting a device that shares numerous structural and functional similarities with API’s product.

Future A330s will also benefit from the elimination of the Airbus A340 production. The programme, which was officially cancelled in November 2011, had been “running on fumes” since the middle of the decade as orders dried up in light of skyrocketing fuel prices. Because of the A340’s increased payload, heavier parts were necessitated on the A330 family as well in order to maintain commonality between the sister aircraft in parts and thereby reducing the overall production costs. But with future orders for the A330 now likely to be paired with Airbus’ A350 XWBs, Airbus can now instead implement design changes on existing parts that would reduce weight incrementally by adjusting for the lower weight requirement. Airbus has yet to make up its mind on such alterations to its production lines, however Aspire Aviation believes that they could conservatively yield at least 0.5 tonnes worth of weight reductions, thus improving fuel burn accordingly.

The combination of all of these effects would make the A330-300 even more efficient and optimised for sub-4500 nm (nautical mile) flights, which would allow Airbus to continue producing the US$222.5 million aircraft. Airbus won 64 firm orders for the A330-300 in 2011, and at the end of January 2012, the firm backlog for the aircraft was 176 examples, with 362 for the A330 programme as a whole. Allowing the increase in production rate of A330s to 9 units per month announced in 2010, Airbus is essentially sold out of production slots for the A330 until 2016. However, with Boeing being sold out of 787 slots until 2018 or beyond, Airbus will essentially be able to offer customers 2 years worth of aircraft with which to replace the ageing Boeing 777-200 family aircraft, or even the relatively underpowered and underweight early-built A330-300s. Between the A330-200F freighter and further sales of an enhanced A330-300, Airbus would be able to extend the A330 programme by 2 years, providing critical cash flow at a time when Airbus is likely to be finalising and enhancing its A350-1000 and A350-800 variants, which have been met with some criticism from the markets over the past two years.  A report in the French newspaper La Tribune claimed that Airbus was planning to have the aforementioned improvements onto the market by around 2014. There there is indeed a value proposition for Airbus to enhance its A330-300 in the medium term, as the nearest Boeing competing products, whether in the forms of the Boeing 787-9 or Boeing 787-10X, will still be limited by availability notwithstanding the aircraft’s production ramp-up to 10 airplanes per month by the end of 2013.

“As part of Airbus’s philosophy, we are continuously looking at the market and studying further improvements to our portfolio. Any decision on whether to proceed will happen in the second half of 2012,” Airbus said in a statement quoted by flightglobal.

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Airbus considering re-engining the A330 to target 787-9 & 787-10
However, Airbus may go further in enhancing its A330-300 line of aircraft than the installation of the sharklets to the aircraft. According to Aspire Aviation‘s sources at the European airframer, Airbus is considering launching an Airbus A330 re-engining programme, tentatively dubbed an A330neo (new engine option), in order to compete with Boeing’s planned 787-10X as well as to provide a buffer against further Airbus A350 delays, particularly delays on the smallest A350-800 variant. Aspire Aviation has learned that as part of the early exploratory phase of the A330neo concept, top Airbus officials have held a private dinner with Singapore Airlines (SIA) officials at the Singapore Air Show during which the Singaporean flag carrier’s opinion on an upgraded or even a re-engined A330 was sought.

The proposed A330neo will seat around 290 passengers in a typical 3-class configuration, about the same size as the current generation A330-300s. The re-engined aircraft would retain the planned increase to a 240 tonnes maximum take-off weight (MTOW), in addition to the installation of sharklets which would reduce 2%-3% in the aircraft’s block fuel burn. Airbus would then install the latest generation of widebody engines such as the General Electric (GE) GEnx engine used on the Boeing 787 aircraft which would provide a 12%-13% reduction in engine specific fuel consumption (SFC). Nevertheless the improved fuel efficiency would be offset by a 3%-4% penalty in block fuel burn due to increased weight and drag. Thus Airbus would be able to achieve at least a 9%-10% reduction in block fuel burn on A330neos versus current generation A330-300s. The range of the A330neo would also be up-gauged to 7,000 nm (nautical miles), an ambitious target considering the range of the proposed 323-seat 787-10X is targeted at around 6,800 nm.

Meanwhile, the Boeing 787-10X is expected to provide a 20% reduction in block fuel burn versus the current generation Airbus A330-300, primarily owing to a 12%-15% reduction in the aircraft’s block fuel burn contributed by improved 787 engines, of which the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 Package A and early-built General Electric (GE) GEnx-1B engines missed their original engine specific fuel consumption (SFC) targets by 4.3% and 2.4%, respectively. The Package B Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine has shaved 2.3% from the engine specific fuel consumption shortfall and the 74,000 lbs (330 kN) Package C engine will bring the engine’s specific fuel consumption (SFC) to ”just over 1% off spec[ification]“, according to Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 programme director Simon Carlisle.

“We are looking at putting some more technology in. We are doing some stuff with the low-pressure turbine (LPT) case cooling and changing some of the aerodynamics in the compressor. Not huge change packages, but some. The thing that is very attractive to us is the [XWB’s] high- and intermediate-pressure ‘rising line’ compressors. It’s a good technology and it’s easily transferable into the Trent 1000. Similarly, we’ve got a whole load of demonstrator programmes running that are churning out technologies that we are looking at,” Charlisle was quoted saying in a flightglobal report.

Likewise, performance improvement packages PIP1 and  PIP2 on the GEnx-1B engine will deliver a combined engine SFC reduction of 2.9% with PIP1 contributing a 1.4% improvement while PIP2 contributing the remainder, thus making the General Electric engine meeting or being slightly better than its original specification (“Boeing eyes 787 improvements along with production ramp-up“, 11th Jan, 12).

Another 5-7% of the 787-10X’s 20% lower block fuel burn comes from the roughly 5% lower weight per passenger from the use of carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) and improved aerodynamics such as the supercritical composite wing with a better-than-anticipated lift-to-drag (L/D) ratio, along with significant weight reductions incorporated from the 787-9. Industry sources the redesigned 787-9 parts are much lighter than those designed for the 787-8 such as Spirit AeroSystems’ one-piece cockpit window frame that will eliminate around 200 fasteners and reduce the cockpit structure’s weight by 100 lbs, according to a flightglobal report.

According to Aspire Aviation‘s multiple sources at the Chicago-based airframer, the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of the 787-10X will be at 250,837 kilogrammes (553,000 lbs), slightly higher than the Boeing 787-9′s 247,208 kg (545,000 lbs) whose entry into service (EIS) is in the first-quarter of 2014 and will have a range of 8,050 nm carrying 280 passengers in a typical 3-class configuration. The higher MTOW of the 787-10X would enable the double-stretched variant to carry a larger structural payload on shorter flights with the -10X’s range being targeted at 6,750 nm with Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines or 6,700 nm with General Electric GEnx engines, despite the aircraft would be 18 feet longer than the 787-9 with 4 additional frames in the aft section and 5 additional frames in the forward section. The maximum landing weight (MLW) of the 787-10X is 201,849 kg (445,000 lbs) with a maximum zero fuel weight (MZFW) of 192,777 kg (425,000 lbs), whereas the 787-9’s MLW and MZFW are 425,000 lbs and 400,000 lbs, respectively.

The schedule on the 787-10X remains fluid at press time, but a recent report from AviationWeek quoted Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) chief executive Jim Albaugh as saying, “We will do the 787-10 by all likelihood. We’re now working through design concepts. Assuming the customer interest is there, later this year [a decision will be made], and we will have something to offer toward the end of the year.” As the 787-10X will accommodate 323 passengers in a typical 3-class configuration with a 20% fuel burn saving over the A330-300, “the economics are very good.”

With an entry into service (EIS) date of around 2016 or so, an A330neo would be the most efficient airplane in its class on the market until 2018 or 2019 when the more fuel efficient 787-10X enters into service. However,Aspire Aviation thinks that such a timeline is ambitious, as there are significant changes that must be made on an A330neo. Airbus required 5 years from the launch of the A320neo in December 2010 to its EIS in October 2015, and Aspire Aviation‘s sources at the European airframer have cautioned that an A330neo re-engining programme would be more complex than the one on the A320neo programme since the larger engine will erode the ground clearance of the A330 whose Rolls-Royce Trent 700 has a minimum ground clearance of 0.72 metres (2.36 feet, 28.3 inches) at maximum ramp weight with a 37.5% centre of gravity (CG)The Rolls-Royce Trent 700 has a 2.47 m (97.4 in) fan diameter whereas the Trent 1000 and the Trent XWB have fan diameters of 112 in and 118 in, respectively. A growth of nearly 15 inches in fan diameter in Rolls-Royce’s engine would leave a ground clearance of only 13.7 inches. Therefore fitting the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine onto the A330 platform would necessitate a redesign of the engine pylon, or even lengthening the A330′s nose and main landing gear, which would further shift the centre of gravity (CG) of the A330 forward and be much more challenging than a simple re-engining.

A noteworthy point is, the General Electric CF6-80E1 engine used on the A330 has an engine fan diameter of 96 inches, whereas the GEnx-1B64 engine has a fan diameter of 111 inches, yet the CF6-80E1 engine has a 0.79 m (2.59 ft, 31.1 in) minimum ground clearance at maximum ramp weight with a 37.5% centre of gravity (CG) and hence fitting the GEnx-1B64 engine onto the A330 may prove to be less complicated and challenging than fitting Rolls-Royce’s next-generation engine offerings onto the A330.

 In addition, optimising a new engine for the A330neo requires man-hours and significant expenditure on the part of engine makers as well. Current A330-300 engine supplier Pratt & Whitney (P&W) already has different variants of its geared turbofan (GTF) engines in development for the MC-21, A320neo, Bombardier C-Series, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ (MHI) Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ), as well as starting work on the 100,000 lbs request for proposal (RFP) for Boeing’s new 777X in March, according to Aspire Aviation‘s sources at the East Hartford, Connecticut-based engine-maker, meaning its plate is essentially full (“Boeing develops 777X to challenge Airbus A350“, 9th Feb, 12). Some have speculated that Pratt could develop an enlarged variation on its GTF for widebodies earlier, but with A320neo and other narrowbody engine developments stretching out until October 2015, it is highly unlikely that such an engine could enter into service on the A330neo. It is therefore more likely that the engines powering an A330neo would come from the two 787 engine suppliers, General Electric and Rolls-Royce. While both the General Electric GEnx-1B and the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 offering enough thrust to replace the General Electric CF6-80E1, Pratt & Whitney PW4168, and Rolls-Royce Trent 700, neither engine is currently optimised for an A330, both of which are developed for the 787 Dreamliner programme. GE and Rolls-Royce would both have to divert engineering resources from those working on the 787-9 and -10X engines, and the Trent XWB engine for Rolls-Royce, as well as from their current efforts to bring the initial 787-8 engines up to specifications, to work on the A330neo, and the additional costs and risks involved in such a move would be significant. Therefore Aspire Aviation thinks that an entry into service (EIS) date in 2017 would be more realistic.

Furthermore, Airbus’ target of increasing the range of the A330-300 to 7,000 nautical miles (nm) is deemed ambitious by Aspire Aviation as well, as it would necessitate further improvements beyond a new engine and the installation of sharklets. The combined advantage of the next-generation engine, sharklets, and lighter A330 parts would serve to naturally increase the A330-300s range to around 6,300 nautical miles from 5,850 nm with 295 passengers in a 3-class configuration. But in order for Airbus to achieve the more than 1,000 nm increase in its range, it would have to further raise maximum take-off weight (MTOW) by adding another central fuel tank, reducing fuel burn by slashing the aircraft’s weight significantly, or a combination of the two. These options would add to the aircraft’s operating empty weight (OEW), which would negatively impact the aircraft’s block fuel burn. Nonetheless, these options would enable Airbus to further close the gap with the 787 programme by adding lighter parts and taking advantage of Alcoa’s third-generation lightweight aluminium-lithium (Al-Li) alloy technology, which would reduce weight and skin friction drag, and is being considered for Boeing’s 777X. However, such an action would add significant complexity and strain on Airbus’ scarce engineering resources, right at a time when it will be ramping up to produce its first A350-900s and get the A320neo to the market on time. Aspire Aviation feels that the confluence of these factors would force Airbus to delay the A330neo by a further 1-2 years should the development on the A350 XWB programme severely strain Airbus’ engineering resources, thereby pushing its timeline of A330neo’s service entry on par or marginally ahead of the 787-10X, and decimating its business case significantly.

Business case of A330neo contingent upon A350-800 development
The Airbus A330neo is being fuelled in part by industry speculation on the performance and entry into service (EIS) which is currently planned in mid-2016 of the A350-800, which is in the same size class as the A330-300 but has a lighter airframe, more range, and a lower design fuel burn than either the A330-300 or the A330neo. However, the A350-800 is currently the most overweight A350 variant, at around 6 tonnes overweight, according to Aspire Aviation‘s sources, whereas the A350-900 is 3-4 tonnes overweight, and the A350-1000 at around 5 tonnes overweight. Additionally, the A350-800, since it is a shrink of the A350-900 instead of being an optimised platform similar to the -900 and the -1000, with the latter due to the thrust increase by Rolls-Royce on the Trent XWB, has already had its block fuel burn increased by “a few per cent.” Because of these issues, numerous figures in the industry have speculated that the A350-800 may be delayed further, as its 2016 service entry date is heavily dependent on the flight testing of -900 example and the incorporation of lessons learned on the -900 onto the -800, particularly in weight reduction. The further the -800 is delayed, the better chance it has at meeting its targeted specification. Thus the A330neo’s business case exists primarily due to the high possibility for A350-800 delays, as an A350-800 that had its entry into service (EIS) in 2016 would likely cannibalise most, if not all A330neo sales.

Based on Aspire Aviation’s economic analysis, an A330neo would close the gap with the Boeing 787-9, at 295 seats for the A330 and 280 for the 787-9, substantially on routes under 5000 nautical miles (nm). On such routes, the 787-9’s advantage in direct operating costs (DOC = cash operating costs + cost of capital) per seat, assuming limited performance improvement packages (PIPs), would be slashed to 3%-6% over that range, owing primarily to lower maintenance costs and marginally lower fuel burn for the 787-9. When one factors in the benefits of commonality with current A330-300s, better availability, and potentially attractive pricing from Airbus, it is not hard to envision a scenario under which the A330neo wins a few head-to-head orders versus the 787-9. Even if Boeing is able to restore the 787-9’s superiority with a series of PIPs, further weight reduction, and product enhancements, the market is large enough for Airbus to still sell airplanes, as the usage of widebodies on short and medium haul sectors is projected to increase as the cost of fuel does, as well as due to continued market maturation in Asia and potential economic booms in Africa and Latin America. Meanwhile, Aspire Aviation’s tentative economic analysis continues to show a large advantage for the 787-10X versus the A330neo in per seat cash operating costs (COC) as well as per seat DOC, as trip costs still come out lower for the 787-10X due to 7%-8% lower fuel burn, a much lighter airframe, and significantly lower projected maintenance costs.  But with 787-10X availability likely to be constrained by high demand for the entire 787 family, Airbus would have the opportunity to carve out a small market niche against the 787-10X. However, the 787-10X is still likely to seize the A330-300’s dominant market leadership in medium-haul widebodies back for Boeing.

Meanwhile, Airbus is apparently taking a more cautious approach with a potential re-engining of the smaller A330-200, which would add further complexity to the overall programme. However, an Aspire Aviation study conducted earlier this year on the relative costs of the A330-200 HGW (high gross weight) and the 787-8 indicated that the A330-200 HGW was within “striking distance” of the early-built 787-8, potentially yielding that an A330-200neo would achieve near-cost parity with the 787-8 on a per-seat basis due to its greater seating capacity. Separately, Aspire Aviation has learned that later-built Boeing 787-8 example would be 6% more fuel efficient than the early-build ones, according to a Boeing internal document seen by Aspire Aviation‘s sources.

In conclusion, despite the challenges, there is a business case for a re-engined A330-300 should the A350-800 be further delayed. Boeing’s 787 family has taken the lead in these segments and Airbus A350-800 has received a customer response that indicates its unsuitability for short and medium-haul markets. Meanwhile, the A330-300 is a popular seller, with superb operating economics and a growing customer base. While an A330neo would likely never reach the operating costs of the 787-9 or -10X, it would be potentially attractive to current A330-300 customers, especially because of higher availability. Airbus must address a number of issues with the A330neo, including engines and potential range increases. And while the A330neo is unlikely to preclude Boeing from launching the 787-10X as the A320neo was reputed to do with Boeing’s new small airplane (NSA), it will allow Airbus to at least maintain a foothold in a lucrative market segment. Many observers might make the comment that the A330neo sounds suspiciously like the first iteration of the Airbus A350, which was killed off by Airbus in favour of the A350 XWB. But there was nothing wrong with the A350’s first configuration, and it was a viable airplane. 200-250 orders may have seemed tepid in comparison to the skyrocketing 787 order total, but it is a perfectly reasonable order base with which to start an airplane programme, especially a relatively low risk re-engining one. Therefore, one can expect to see more similarities with the initial A350 as the A330neo continues to be defined, and Airbus mulls the launch of a product that would continue the highly successful A330 programme.

Updated on 5th March, 2012 with corrected engine fan diameter of General Electric CF6-80E1 engine

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