Late last month Airbus froze the design of its A320 New Engine Option (A320neo), the newly re-engined version of its established single-aisle family that will serve as an interim step toward an all-new narrowbody design that may not enter service until 2030 or later. The European manufacturer has just released its “master development schedule,” which foresees first flight by the end of 2014.
Airbus believes that the full suite of game-changing engineering advances needed to justify an all-new design remains more than 10 years away. Short-term prospective improvements, such as innovative composites and metallic materials, new engines and aerodynamic concepts, alternative fuels and advanced air-traffic management advances will all become available in the remainder of this decade, and Airbus is specifically supporting development in these areas. The world will probably have to wait until after 2025 for greater leaps, the company believes–including nanotechnology structures, open-rotor engines, laminar-flow and “smart” wings, fuel-cell technology and new cockpits.
Launched in late 2010, the Neo is to be available with new, more-efficient Pratt & Whitney PW1100G geared-turbofan (GTF) or CFM International Leap-1A engines and sharklet wingtips. After months of vacillation, during which it argued that such evolution was unnecessary, U.S. competitor Boeing followed Airbus into the re-engining game in mid-2011 when established customer American Airlines chose the A320neo. Previously, Boeing had developed the “next-generation” 737NG only after United Airlines had ordered the A320, according to chief commercial officer-customers John Leahy.
To support A320neo development, Airbus is employing a “minimum-change” strategy that involves reinforced wing structure, fuselage and passenger-cabin adaptations, a reinforced center wingbox, new pylons (or struts) and modified engine systems. The wing reinforcement is restricted to the outer span and is “weight neutral,” according to Airbus programs executive vice president Tom Williams.
A320neos will be approved on the current type certificate and flight crews will not need a new type rating. Airbus A320neo chief engineer Pierre-Henri Brousse said official closure of the concept stage means the design is frozen; the performance confirmed; and all aerostructures, engines, nacelle and system suppliers are “engaged.” With budget and market assumptions also in place, Brousse said Airbus would go to detailed design and begin to cut metal “in the near term,” perhaps as early as this month. An early stage in manufacture has been forging of a forward lateral spar for the first A320neo pylon.
Williams said the A320neo is unusual because the “very convincing” business case for the program means that the Airbus shareholders have been pressing the manufacturer’s management to proceed, rather than having to be persuaded to authorize the project. Design of the aircraft is scheduled to be complete in about 12 months, with final assembly set to begin in mid-2014.
A first flight around the end of that year is planned and would be followed by entry into service before the beginning of 2016. Brousse acknowledged that the schedule is tight, but progress with engine and nacelle developments is “very good” and he described airframe design and powerplant integration progress as “steady.” He said “very robust progress tracking” confirmed that Airbus will “deliver each and every aircraft on time and on target.”