Airbus Studying Prospects of ‘Double-Stretched’ A350

 - October 28, 2013, 11:10 AM
A350 program chief Didier Evrard

In what might seem a 180-degree heading change, Airbus confirmed the possibility of a second stretch of its A350XWB that could help fill a gap between the largely composite-bodied twinjet and the A380 superjumbo.

While the European manufacturer previously insisted that “double-stretches” don’t typically succeed, A350 program head Didier Evrard conceded last week that Airbus has begun studying the prospect. “Stretching [it] further is possible; it is no show-stopper,” he said, while failing to address questions about the feasibility of using the current wing and engines. However, he appeared to acknowledge the danger of overtaxing the company’s resources, given its plans to increase twin-aisle production to 10 per month. “It’s a question of priorities,” he said. “For us, we have a big order book to deliver already so we are not in a hurry to define another product.”

Still, Evrard’s confirmation of the mere possibility contrasts strongly with remarks made by Airbus COO of customers John Leahy in January. “[A double stretch] has never been shown to work,” he said. “We couldn’t do it. And we don’t think [Boeing] could do it either.”

Of course, Boeing plans to do just that with the 777X, a move that represents something of a change also for the U.S. company–in timing if not in direction. Eighteen months ago then-Boeing Commercial Airplanes president Jim Albaugh said BCA management would ask Boeing’s board of directors to authorize launch of the 777X toward the end of last year. Gulf operator Emirates Airline and British Airways responded enthusiastically and the project seemed to pose a serious threat to the A350.

Then, just as the industry packed its bags for the Farnborough airshow, Albaugh suddenly announced his retirement and Boeing named an immediate successor. Almost as immediately came word that Boeing had ceased “looking to meet a goal set by Albaugh” to seek 777X launch approval in 2012.

Emirates criticized Boeing for what it considered reticence on the part of the U.S. manufacturer born out of competitive considerations. Cathay Pacific went further, arriving at Farnborough to announce orders for 26 A350-1000s despite operating a similar number of 777-300ERs. Now that Boeing has reacted to the A350-1000 with the larger, 400-seat 777-9X, it appears time for Airbus to react to Boeing.

But it remains early days. Evrard didn’t answer the question about the A350-1000’s wing and engines, and several shrugs of the shoulders accompanied what little he did say. “Today, it is still in the concept phase, or even pre-concept phase,” he noted. “But others did it, so we can certainly do it. It’s a question of markets, and we will continue to listen to customers [and] hear what’s best for them, but if the market needs it we’ll do it.”