Farnborough Air Show

Airbus takes long-term look at future single-aisle designs

 - July 15, 2010, 3:14 AM

New competitors in the single-aisle airliner market have driven Airbus to look beyond current technologies to identify the required characteristics for an A320-series replacement to enter service in 15 or more years. According to John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer for customers, successful airliner programs have a 40-year life, so the European manufacturer’s need is for “future technology for future aircraft” that will accommodate advances in all areas.

And it isn’t just Boeing that Airbus needs to worry about. Strategy and future-programs senior vice president Ian Dawkins, speaking before he left the OEM to head OnAir, the Airbus/SITA cabin communications joint venture, said the established Airbus/Boeing single-aisle duopoly will end with the mainline-market entry of designs such as Canada’s Bombardier C Series, as well as of projects from China’s Commercial Air Corp. (Comac) and United Aircraft in Russia. However, he claimed that the Bombardier C Series, Comac C919 and United Aircraft MS-21 designs planned for introduction in the next decade provide “no step change” in technology.

At a press briefing in May, Airbus programs and customer-support executive vice president Tom Williams acknowledged Bombardier as “a threat,” and recognized that there “will be a Chinese single-aisle [market entrant].” However, Leahy said he sees Bombardier as “the only credible” challenger. “There is no need for Sukhoi and the others because the A320 series and [Boeing] 737 are established in the marketplace,” he insisted.

Twenty-two years after its entry into service, the A320 is barely into middle age by Leahy’s reckoning, which gives Airbus plenty of thinking time before it must set the principal characteristics of a follow-on design. More than 4,250 of the A320-series models have been delivered to over 220 customers and are flying with about 250 operators. With orders comfortably exceeding 6,500, the Airbus single-aisle backlog is well over 2,200 aircraft–more than five years’ production.

So, what is the Airbus philosophy as it considers future single-aisle requirements? “A new aircraft today would probably be metal–we do not know enough about all-composite structures. Why would you go [with a new aircraft] now if you could launch an all-new composite design in 2025?” asked Leahy, rhetorically.

“Engine manufacturers believe the best future powerplant will “probably be an open-rotor fan, but they have not fully figured it out yet,” said Leahy. He believes it will take until the middle or the end of the next decade to achieve full consensus on next-generation powerplant technology.

For its part, through a program dubbed A30X, Airbus is working to understand what the main characteristics and requirements for a new-generation narrowbody would be. “The requirements will drive technology and [our] decisions,” said Dawkins. He cited potential technologies such as biofuels, fuel cells, innovative structures and smart wings, as well as new cockpits and air traffic management systems.

The ‘Real’ Next Generation

The European airframer has established what it calls a new single-aisle strategy in
a move that might be the first act in an unfolding 15- to 20-year drama as Airbus and Boeing consider the “real next generation” of single-aisle jetliners. This strategy involves continued improvement of current models and a product-development study dubbed A320 New Engine Option (NEO) ahead of whatever design emerges from the A30X program.

A320 customers already have the choice among CFM International’s CM56 family, the International Aero Engines V2500 and the Pratt & Whitney PW6000 (only for the A318) engines. Introduction of a fourth powerplant to the catalog, if Airbus decides to go down that runway, would confirm what it perceives as industry uncertainty. Engine manufacturers have said that the best foreseeable technology is not yet available, while airlines are saying they cannot wait while fuel prices continue to rise; they want an interim improvement.

Leahy hopes to provide information about a potential A320NEO variant, possibly available in 2015 or soon after, here at the Farnborough airshow ahead of a prospective launch decision by year’s end. Such a new model could be introduced three or four years after the planned 2012 service entry of A320 upturned wingtips dubbed “sharklets,” which are said to improve aircraft performance with up to a 3.5-percent reduction in fuel-burn/seat on longer sectors. This compares with the one-percent improvement provided by the original A320 wingtip fence, said marketing vice president Andrew Shankland. Leahy said the sharklets will provide up to 100 nm more range, about 1,100 pounds more payload, or up to 6,615 pounds more takeoff weight.

In its A320NEO deliberation, which is “not yet a done deal,” Williams said, Airbus wants to ensure that the P&W PW1000G geared turbofan (GTF) offers a sufficient improvement in performance. The questions he has been asking include, “Will the GTF impact airlines’ maintenance costs, especially those of operators requiring quick turnarounds [such as low-cost carriers]? What will be the effect of contaminated oil in the gearbox, for example?”

In turn, Leahy wants to be sure there’s a real market for an A320NEO. “We shouldn’t do it if [going ahead] depends on [winning] launch orders,” he said, insisting that the variant must be a genuine option. His preference is to see “Rolls-Royce and P&W resolve their differences” and agree on a program to offer a powerplant under the aegis of their IAE joint venture.

Shankland said there is “some improvement in the offing” for the IAE V2500, but added, “I don’t know if we will adopt it.” Williams confirmed that Airbus has been heavily involved in talks about the NEO variant with P&W and CFM International, as well as with nacelle suppliers.

Part of the product development study involves analyzing the potential value of fuel savings compared with today’s A320. Leahy’s estimates suggest that over 800-nm average sectors, with fuel prices increasing 1.9 percent a year and with a 15-year discount rate of 10 percent, there could be a $5 million to $9 million potential value benefit per aircraft for fuel prices ranging from $84 to $150 a barrel.

Production To Increase

Williams declared he is “pretty confident” that Airbus will increase A320 production to 36 per month in December. “Customers are looking for early delivery,” he said, although he concedes that the recent recession had seen orders cancelled as “600 aircraft moved away.” Nevertheless, A320s have held market value “very well,” demonstrated by aircraft “quickly returning to service after coming off lease,” he added.

Recent A320 developments include passenger-to-freight (P2F) conversion, introduction of a fuel-tank inerting system (FTIS) and a second service goal (airframe-life) extension. Acknowledging that the P2F-conversion market has been delayed as airlines have struggled to fill under-floor belly capacity, Williams said he expects demand to become “very strong” by 2012-13. “There are a lot of old Boeing 727 freighters to be replaced and there will be a lot of A320s available,” he said.

Tests have begun of a mockup of the P2F conversion, which is being developed by EADS-EFW with Russian partner Irkut. The concept phase has been concluded and design is “progressing well,” Shankland said. He added that A320Fs will have a new reinforced floor, a 121- by 86-inch side-loading main-deck cargo door and a barrier wall between the cargo compartment and courier accommodation behind the cockpit.

The company expects to deliver 11 A320s with the new FTIS this year. Airbus has agreed to an in-service date with customers and the first system has been embodied on a new production aircraft.

Finally, fatigue tests associated with the latest A320 extended-service goal have proceeded ahead of schedule, according to Airbus. “Between 138,000 flight cycles and 170,000 flight hours have been achieved,” reported Williams. Airbus hopes to extend A320 scheduled maintenance to an ultimate 90,000 flight cycles and 180,000 flight hours.

Other A320 changes have included weight reductions, redesign of 40 computers and systems, as well as cabin improvements such as new overhead bins, sidewall, ceiling, toilet and galley, and up to eight additional seats.