Launching the A320 New Engine Option (A320neo) has given Airbus time in which to develop new technologies before having to invest in all-new designs, say senior executives. The move could save perhaps $10 billion in short-term expenditure, while keeping A320 operating costs a step ahead of aspiring market entrants.
Potential technologies that could define future aircraft characteristics include Airbus plans to test new laminar-flow aerodynamics and “open-rotor” engine applications on an A340 flying testbed, according to research and technology senior vice president Axel Krein. For example, Airbus wants to test fuel cells for use in place of auxiliary power units and ram-air turbines to provide supplementary or replacement power sources.
“It would be irresponsible not to fly [such technologies] in the next five years,” Airbus strategy and future programs executive vice president Christian Scherer told AIN. “[Open-rotor technology] is the number-one chance to reduce fuel burn until there is propulsion more efficient than the propeller.”
The A320neo launch maximized the European manufacturer's competitiveness against Boeing, which in response has offered a re-engined 737 variant, dubbed the 737 Max. It has also given notice that Airbus will not surrender market share to the Bombardier CSeries or other designs such as China's Comac C919 and Russia's Irkut MS-21.
Krein said Airbus would fit the A340 testbed with eight-meter (26.25 feet) composite outer-wing panels, whose laminar-flow aerofoil section could reduce fuel burn by up to 10 percent in whole-span applications. The concept, which engineers have demonstrated in wind-tunnel tests, involves reduced sweep-back that will give the A340 testbed a distinct kink in the wing's outboard leading edge.
Various aircraft-configuration ideas include high, rear-mounted engines driving 4.2-meter (13.78 feet)-diameter contrarotating open rotors. Krein said Airbus is working with engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce and Safran, and has tested a five-meter (16.4 feet)-span wind-tunnel model. All the ideas could conceivably fly between 2014 and 2016, ahead of an A320-replacement launch in 2018 or 2019, said Krein.
Scherer said that launching the A320neo has “bought a lot of time and money to research properly, instead of running around like a headless chicken.” Airbus would use the opportunity to distance itself from new-generation “wannabes” that, it says, would bring nothing to the market.
To consider long-term research and development requirements beyond 2030, the company has also established an “innovation cell” in Bangalore to complement similar existing units in Toulouse and Hamburg.