Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: Fast-selling Neo ups the ante in new narrowbody stakes

 - June 19, 2011, 10:25 AM

The Airbus A320neo (for “new engine option”) is “the fastest selling aircraft in history” and the manufacturer set itself the target of accruing “over 500” commitments by this week’s Paris Air Show, according to chief operating officer (customers) John Leahy. By early April, the company had booked more than 330 orders and “commitments” and this prompted it to accelerate the program by six months.

The European airframer now plans to deliver the new model, which was formally launched last December, for service entry in October 2015 and has confirmed the lead development powerplant as the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G geared turbofan (GTF). The alternative CFM International Leap-X engine is running about six months behind it. Re-engined variants of the A319 and A321 sibling designs each will account initially for a quarter share of deliveries, although Airbus has acknowledged that this split might evolve as the program matures.

The date for delivery effectively increased the variant’s lead over U.S. competitor Boeing, which has yet to announce its own response to the perceived market for a re-engined–rather than replacement–design. Last year, Leahy famously suggested that if the A320neo had the go-ahead by the end of 2010, Boeing would in turn launch a clean-sheet product for 2020.

In the mid-years of the past decade, the two companies saw an emerging market for A320- or 737-repacement capacity in the early years of the 2010s, but subsequently all best-guesses have moved to the right. Early last year, Leahy forecast that the timing for a new aircraft had moved back to at least 2022, if not later. The suggested requirement for a new single-aisle Airbus, dubbed “A30X” and incorporating advanced engine, materials and systems developments, has now moved even further into the future.

Two months ago, Leahy’s perception of progress had persuaded him to look beyond 2025 to 2030–or perhaps 2035–as the moment for convergence of requisite new technologies. A major part of his considerations is that by the 2030s there should be a new, much more efficient generation of open-rotor engines.

No Replacement Orders

Despite the stated aspirations of carriers such as Air Asia, the manufacturer said customers may not replace their A320 orders with bookings for the re-engined model. Perhaps thinking it could stimulate Airbus through media headlines, earlier this year the fast-growing low-cost operator voiced its ambition to swap some outstanding requirements for A320neos.

According to Leahy, providing such flexibility in its order book would “create too much confusion.” He said that to be able to plan for the future, the manufacturer “needs to know” the likely division of production between the two models. Leahy claims that allowing customers to switch orders between the two variants is tantamount to allowing an airline to take a second slot,

“and we’re not going to do that,” he said.

For programs executive vice president Tom Williams, Airbus has a story to tell and must get the message across: the A320neo represents “minimum change with maximum benefit.” He claims the latest variant in the established single-aisle family will “fulfill a rising demand from the market for ‘green’ and innovative products” by providing 15-percent better fuel efficiency, reduced noise, reduced NOx and CO2 emissions, and lower operating and maintenance costs.

Minimum Changes

The official is at pains to emphasize the manufacturer’s commitment to minimum change. In reviewing available opportunities to modify the existing specification, Williams acknowledged that Airbus “clearly could end up with an all-new aircraft, but we have to be realistic.” The A320neo will include minimum change from and maximum commonality with the current design and will be covered by the existing type certificate and pilots’ type ratings, he said. He added that the aircraft will not require “a lot of new design and management tools [or] processes.”

The Airbus A320neo will sport new engines, nacelles and pylons; modified wing and wingbox structures; and adapted electronic systems, Williams said. The only A320 part subject to “significant difference” is the engine pylon on which Airbus will hang alternative Pratt & Whitney PW100G geared turbofans or CFM International Leap-X powerplants, he said. In his view, both CFM and P&W have been “extremely aggressive” in addressing requirements. “P&W is very well advanced and [CFM partner] General Electric is also working hard,” he said. The new engines will be housed in 81-inch-diameter nacelles that will provide some 18.1 inches ground clearance.

Williams said the pylons will not be an issue because the A320 wing structure will be modified to accept the loads from the new engine and nacelle propulsion system and the center wingbox will be reinforced. The flight deck will not be new, with changes being confined to software adjustments to take into account the new powerplant.

Development of the A320neo has involved detailed assessments of resource planning and suppliers’ capabilities, lessons learned from recent research (including that for A320 “sharklet” wingtips and the upcoming twin-aisle A350), selection of any required new risk-sharing partners and integration of all manufacturing and design disciplines. Williams explained that a “quite manageable” group of about 900 people have been involved in the exercise, but the project has not required “a whole bunch of new suppliers.”

Introducing the Sharklets

Williams acknowledged that a key question for the manufacturer is how to manage the introduction both of the sharklets and the A320neo in the next few years. A very simplistic graph illustrating the new model’s ramp-up over a 30-month period from mid-2015 to the beginning of 2018 shows A320 production rising slightly–perhaps driven by current order backlog–as production of sharkletted aircraft begins.

Manufacturing rates for the current A320 aircraft then begins to decline, the trend line eventually crossing that indicating initial ramp-up of the A320neo, with completion of sharklet-equipped aircraft bridging the valley above the A320/A320neo crossover point. The build rate for sharkletted A320s will start to fall as “old” A320 manufacturing ends (over a “relatively long period”) and as A320neo manufacturing becomes increasingly well established, the manufacturer said.

As it prepares to introduce the first examples of the A320neo in October 2015, Airbus has been investing in production flexibility that will permit an easy move from the current aircraft to the new variant, or simultaneous production of both–which Williams said can be “built back-to-back” (or perhaps more accurately nose to tail). The manufacturer has been trying to consider the critical path: for example, A320neo wings will be made in essentially the A320 jigs, with tooling adapted to accommodate changes. There will not be a family of new jigs for the A320neo.

Accordingly, Airbus tooling will remain in use until the prospective new technologies converge to enable development of an all-new aircraft in perhaps 25 years’ time. If that happens, the A320 family will have been endowed with a potential manufacturing life of more than 40 years.