Airbus A330 NEO underway as airlines deal with changed world

The smaller A330 NEO the -800 ordered by Hawaiian
The smaller A330 NEO the -800 ordered by Hawaiian

By BEN SANDILANDS– What must be one of the fastest hi-tech makeovers of a wide body jet is underway at Airbus where the first metal cutting for its A330 NEO or new engine option variants is now underway.

Metal? Hi-tech? ‘Yes’ to both in a world where the PR fixation with composites is apparently somewhat overdone when it comes to the opportunities ‘mature’ jet designs, like the A330, present for radical efficiency improvements in engines and airframes and alloys for a fraction of the investment needs of an all new design.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that the A330 NEO will be pitched at a lower capacity need than the all new high composite Airbus A350 family, for which deliveries began late last year, the A330 story is an engineering insight into the merits of working with what you have compared to starting from scratch.

(As is also the case with the Airbus A320 NEO single aisle program and the competing Boeing 737 MAX line that follows, indeed currently trails it, both in sales and progress.)

The A330 NEOs come in two sizes like the current versions. There is an A330-900 NEO which is identical in capacity to today’s A330-300s but flies further with less fuel burn and other overall efficiency savings. And there is to be an A330-800 NEO corresponding to the A330-200. The caveat in both is that the NEO benefits kick in at medium to longer ranges.  If airlines want a breakthough in terms of more efficiency over shorter haul A330 operations Airbus also offers an A330 regional package which doesn’t involve new tech engines or wing revisions to improve longer haul aerodynamic efficiency.

In a statement Airbus says:

The first A330neo is coming to life one year after the programme was launched, with the first ‘cutting of metal’ underway at its production facilities in Toulouse and Nantes. Machining of the first engine pylon started during the summer at Airbus’ facility in Saint-Eloi (Toulouse), while Airbus’ Plant in Nantes began production of the first A330neo centre wing box. 

The first A330neo Centre Wing Box rib 1 produced in Nantes uses an innovative Isogrid design with 330 triangular pockets which enables the part to meet all our rigidity, strength and low weight requirements.

The all-new pylon produced in Saint-Eloi is a key element in the A330neo’s innovative design, attaching the latest generation, fuel-efficient Trent 7000 engines to the wings. Made out of light weight titanium, the A330neo pylon uses cutting-edge aerodynamics, materials and design technologies derived from the A350 XWB.

It would be fascinating to watch the proponents of ‘all new’ versus ‘intelligent revision’ hold a public debate in an Airbus or Boeing company forum, but observers can be confident this will never happen.

The big jet rivals are doing these things simultaneously as commercial opportunity dictates. The message from both in recent times is that reinvention is rather less popular than revision at the board and investor levels, and likely to remain so for some time.

The central wing box of the A330 NEO taking shape in Nantes
The central wing box of the A330 NEO taking shape in Nantes

When Airbus decided to go ahead with the A330 NEO program, announced at the Farnborough Air Show in July last year, fuel measured against the US West Texas crude benchmarks or that of Singapore’s Tapis price (which is more relevant to Qantas and Virgin Australia) were far higher, although subsequent currency declines in the $A have reduced some of those benefits.

This may have played in the A330 NEO’s favour, in that its competitor, the 787 Dreamliner, is widely claimed to be more expensive to acquire, undermining the fuel burn advantage which is a major selling point for the Boeing high composite design.

Airbus says the overall operating costs of the A330 NEOs , and in some circumstances, today’s A330s, makes them highly competitive with the Dreamliner family, and Boeing not surprisingly, says this is not the case, but unless an observer knew exactly what a particular airline paid for either jet, and what what the configuration and yield realities were, it is impossible to say who is right.

Airline purchases are largely decided by business cases or circumstances unique to their own needs.

The lead firm order for the A330-900 NEO which should be in service by the end of 2017 is US giant Delta while Hawaiian seems set to be the first operator of the smaller -800 NEO by late 2018. So far there are 145 firm orders for A330 NEOs, all but ten of them for the larger -900 NEO.

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