Airbus’s A220 program continues to evolve into a major market force as improvements such as a 5,000-pound increase in maximum takeoff weight (mtow) and 180-minute Etops approval further express the company’s commitment to reinforcing the former Bombardier C Series’ commercial appeal.
Speaking with AIN in early June, Airbus A220 head of engineering and customer support Rob Dewar explained that customer demand—not any particular internal objective—prompted the improvements that resulted in a range increase of some 450 nm and ETOPS diversion allowance from 120 to 180 minutes. Calling the mtow a “paperwork exercise,” he said it nevertheless required not insignificant investment, even though the airplane’s developers recognized the capability from early in the test program.
“It’s interesting because we do have an exceptional cabin that really is very comfortable to fly even very long-range flights,” said Dewar. “And we saw that starting originally with Air Baltic. “They started with [generally] one- to two-and-a-half-hour flights. And, of course, they started the longer-range flights to Abu Dhabi from Riga, [which lasts about] six-and-a-half hours. They had still quite a bit of fuel left, so we had requests from a number of other customers. So it’s kind of something that was a quick win for us.”
Scheduled for approval in the A220-300 in mid-2020 and in the A220-100 about a year later, the mtow and resulting range increase will certainly open more transatlantic routes, added Dewar, while the 180-minute ETOPS capability will allow the likes of Asian launch customer Korean Air to fly more direct routes over the Pacific. Although Transport Canada granted 180-minute ETOPS approval in January, Korean authorities need to follow suit to allow Korean Air to take advantage of the capability. The airline has yet to indicate when it will need the approval, however.
“[Korean] is the first one that has gone public with it,” added Dewar. “But we have other customers as well.”
Although Dewar wouldn’t specify the routes the airplane’s extra range and ETOPS capability might allow due to concern over exposing individual airlines’ network strategies, Airbus has cited as examples markets between Western Europe and the Middle East and between Southeast Asia and Australia.
“There’s a lot of interest in doing those point-to-point, long-range [routes] with a capacity of this size,” said Dewar. “That makes sense because the market demand for travel from point-point is there. The interest is much larger than we had originally anticipated. That’s why we started with the range being shorter, thinking it covers all of North America. It covers South America as well. But as customers really see the feedback on the passenger comfort and that this thing can do this long range and take off in these types of fields, it presents them with a new opportunity.”
Apart from the current sampling of regions whose airlines have already demonstrated an appetite for the A220, Dewar sees a lot of promise in China and even Russia, where Red Wings Airlines planned to become the first operator of the model this year. Airbus plans to gain Russian certification for the A220 “shortly,” he said, and Chinese certification “in the coming months.” Dewar said he has seen no exogenous barriers to doing business in either market, notwithstanding the tense political and trade environment. “I know we've had good support from the authorities,” he reported. “They were [in Mirabel], they flew the aircraft, they were very satisfied. Basically, we're nearing completion of that activity. So again, we expect the rest of the certification imminently.”
As of the end of May having delivered 15 A220s out of a forecast 45 this year, Airbus now counts 72 airplanes in service with five operators. Dispatch reliability has improved progressively, reported Dewar, while performance figures have beaten original estimates. Airbus expects Pratt & Whitney to complete the remaining improvements to the model’s PW1500G geared turbofans, including installation of a full-life combustor, sometime next year, he added. What will become the engine’s fourth generation of combustor will last 25,000 hours, compared with the current generation’s 13,000 hours, said Dewar. Meanwhile, Pratt has fit nearly all PW1500Gs with new liftoff seals, he reported. “The other issues, honestly, are much more insignificant,” explained Dewar.
Airbus sees production in Mirabel, Quebec rising to its full capacity of 10 aircraft per month by 2024 or 2025. The company has scheduled first delivery from its new plant in Mobile, Alabama, in mid-2020. That factory will carry a capacity of four airplanes a month, bringing total delivery rates to 14 per month by 2025.
While acknowledging some supply chain difficulties, Dewar opted not to identify where any weaknesses reside, preferring to speak in generalities about the capacity challenges the entire industry faces. Asked about how Bombardier’s plans to sell its Belfast plant—maker of the composite wings for the A220—might affect Airbus, he said he saw no reason for concern and that the European airframer didn’t harbor a preference for any particular potential buyer.
“We’re very confident in the supply of the wings,” insisted Dewar. “You know, Belfast has done a fantastic job with the wing development and of course with the deliveries. So we expect that to be fully supported in a new acquisition. We do follow it closely, but we're confident and...Bombardier is a partner on the A220, so there is also a common interest there to make sure that it's well supported.”
Formerly head of the C Series program with Bombardier, Dewar delivers not only the standard company narrative on the benefits of the Airbus acquisition relating to economies of scale, human resources, sales power, aftermarket networks, and supply chain influence: “[Airbus] took an approach of keeping us integrated where it makes sense but keeping us, let’s say, more dynamic, more nimble, and more reactive than being fully integrated into Airbus,” he explained. “So they really looked to leverage the best of both. Not just say everything Airbus does is all better, but to look at the best that both organizations can offer and match it together and make something really great.”