If you're an airline looking to buy an airplane in the 100-200 seat category, your options are limited to the Airbus A320 or the Boeing (BA) 737. Both of those aircraft families have been around for a long time, and the airlines have pushed the two manufacturers for an update to get better efficiency and range out of them. Airbus is finally responding with a new engine option on what it's calling the A320neo. (Creativity abounds: "neo" = "new engine option.") Now let's see if it can live up to the hype.
The airlines have been pushing Boeing and Airbus to give them airplanes with better fuel efficiency so that they can lower operating costs. On the big jet side of things, Boeing's new 787 and the Airbus A350 should deliver major improvements over current offerings, but it's been quiet on the smaller jet side of the house.
Boeing and Airbus have long said they're studying options for the 737 and A320 families, but that it wasn't worth designing a replacement aircraft yet. Airbus, however, now admits that there's enough new technology to at least put new engines on the existing aircraft. That might sound easy, but it's not. The project will likely cost around â‚¬1 billion, which in the scheme of things isn't that much, but it will take some significant work. First delivery isn't expected until the spring of 2016.
So why didn't the company do this earlier? I imagine Airbus was probably waiting to see if the engine technology could live up to the hype. The engine option from Pratt & Whitney uses a geared turbofan. That engine, which will power Bombardier's smaller C-Series aircraft, has only recently been showing promise in testing.
The other engine offered, from the GE-led CFM consortium, is going to go on a new Chinese-built jet but that is also several years away from first delivery. It remains to be seen if this engine can meet specs. So, until recently, there wasn't enough data to suggest to Airbus that the savings would be great enough to bother moving forward.
Now, Airbus is saying that fuel efficiency will improve by "up to 15 percent" over the current airplane. If you say "up to," it makes it easy to live up to that promise. The question is, how close will it get?
The airplane will have what Airbus obnoxiously calls "sharklets" installed on the end of the wing. Basically, they're those little winglets you see sticking straight up at the end of the wing. They reduce drag which in turn improves fuel efficiency, and that should help shave 3.5 percent off current fuel burn on longer flights. So that will help them reach the 15 percent number, I suppose.
But there's a lot that has to be done before this airplane takes flight, and only then will we know if it can even get close to the 15 percent guarantee. If it doesn't, then it will be less attractive to those airlines that already have A320 aircraft and want to keep full commonality between airplanes. (The A320neo will have 95 percent airframe commonality with the current A320.) Commonality is important because when parts are the same across airplanes, you can reduce the number of parts you need to have in inventory to fix problems. It also helps reduce training expense and reduces complexity for scheduling crews.
On the other hand, if this airplane does see a 15 percent increase in fuel efficiency, then Boeing operators might start looking at Airbus for replacement purposes. So then the question is, how will Boeing react? I'll have more on that tomorrow.