PHOTO: Roberto Leiro

TOULOUSE — The first prototype of the A330-900 has taken off this morning before the eyes of Airbus’ employees, invitees, and media.

The aircraft, (F-WTTE · MSN 1795) departed Toulouse–Blagnac Airport at 09:57 local time (07:57 GMT), commanded by Captains Thierry Bourges, and Thomas Wilhelm, Experimental Test Pilots, and Alain Pourchet, Test-Flight Engineer. The Flight Test Station Staff were Jean-Philippe Cottet, Emiliano Requena Esteban, and Gert Wunderlich.

The progress of the test flight focused on the aircraft’s handling characteristics, and flight envelope was monitored in real time by a ground station via a direct telemetry link.

During the planned two-hour flight over Southwestern France, a Dassault Falcon 20 chase plane will join the A330-900 to document the behavior of the aircraft in flight. (Credits: Author)
A Dassault Falcon 20 chase plane joined the prototype of the A330-900 to document the behavior of the aircraft in flight. (Credits: Author)

Fabrice Brégier, president and chief operating officer of Airbus Commercial Aircraft, highlighted that the A330neo Program is “another milestone along the Airbus journey of continuous innovation,” he also thanked the teams who contributed to making today’s flight happen.

“We look forward to a successful flight test campaign and entry into service of the A330neo in 2018,” Brégier said.

Derived from the A330 platform in service since the early 1990s, the A330neo is an improved version, with quieter and more efficient Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 engines, a new Airspace passenger cabin including larger overhead bins, LED lighting, upgraded in-flight entertainment platforms and better lavatory options, and a more efficient wing design and new cockpit technology are also in the mix.

The Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 is a derivation from the Trent 1000-TEN, manufactured for the Boeing 787, and incorporates technology from the Trent XWB which Rolls-Royce designed for the Airbus A350. According to Rolls-Royce, the Trent 7000 is capable of delivering 68,000-72,000lb (302-320kN) of thrust and cutting fuel consumption by 10%.

The aircraft returned to its base at 14:10 local time (12:10 GMT) after flying for four hours and thirteen minutes over Southwestern France.

The aircraft was welcomed by a cheering crowd of employees and invitees. (Credits: Author)
The aircraft was welcomed by a cheering crowd of employees and invitees. (Credits: Author)

Airbus plans to carry out a 1,400-hour flight-test campaign. The A330-900 will log 1,100 flight test hours with three aircraft, the second of which is set to join the fleet by the next month, plus the first production aircraft, to validate the Airspace cabin before entry into service.

The shortened -800 variant is currently in production and will go through a shorter flight test campaign of just 300 flight hours, with its first flight planned to take place in the first half of 2018 and its certification a year later.

An Enhanced MTOW Version on the Works

During an interview after takeoff, Brégier confirmed that the company is planning to systematically improve by four percent the Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) of the A330neo, taking it from 242 tonnes to 251 tonnes. This A330neo variant “will enter service probably around mid-2020, because we have to change a few things regarding the landing gear and braking system, but these are what I call minor and controlled modifications.”

These modifications will help to extend the range of the A330neo by 700 nautical miles “compared to the aircraft that just took off,” and additional 1,000 nautical miles when compared to the current A330 in production.

“The increased MTOW will allow the aircraft probably [to fly non-stop] with fuel loads, for example, from Kuala Lumpur to London,” Brégier said.

Aircraft Orders Slow to a Drip

An enhanced A330neo would help Airbus to make the aircraft even more attractive to potential customers while defending its position in the 250-300 seat market, now under siege by the Boeing 787-8 and 787-9.

To date, the program has logged 212 aircraft sold. However, some of those could eventually be swapped for the larger A350-900 or the smaller A321neo. For example, AirAsia X, the largest customer of the A330-900 with commitments for 66 aircraft, has been considering swapping these aircraft for the larger A350.

Also, Hawaiian Airlines (HA), the sole customer of the A330-800 with just six frames, has been considering negotiate with Airbus to obtain additional A321neos and place a new widebody order with either the European airframer or Boeing.

Despite the uncertainty, the A330neo has gained two new customers since last June, with Azul Linhas Aereas (AD), which has signed a leasing contract with Avolon for five aircraft, and Aircalin (SB) with two A330-900s.

Other major customers are Iran Air (IA) with 28 aircraft ordered, Air Lease Corporation (ALC) with 27, and Delta Air Lines with 25 aircraft.