LONDON — With the launch of the Airbus A330neo earlier this week, the future appears bleak for the beleaguered Airbus A350-800. The smallest variant of the A350 XWB, a shrink from the base A350-900 model, has been under fire for some time.
From an order base that once approached 120 airframes, the A350-800’s backlog has dwindled over the past year to just 34. Hawaiian Airlines is the customer most publicly committed to the A350-800, but has just six aircraft on order. Asiana and Aeroflot retain eight orders apiece, while Yemenia have ten, and lessor AWAS two.
At the A330neo launch briefing Monday, Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier all but confirmed the demise of the A350-800, noting that the order base was dwindling anyway, “[For] the A350-800, we have seen the trend of the market. The trend is that most of the backlog was converted into -900s.”
Mr. Bregier did caution that Airbus would keep the A350-800 on offer so long as orders remained, “I think we still have 34 firm orders, so we are committed to them.” Hawaiian in particular has been rather stringent in its commitment to operate the A350-800, though the American carrier is likely leveraging the dwindling backlog as a means of securing superior commercial terms on an A350-900 or A330neo conversion.
And the A330neo should offer a potent tool in converting the remaining A350-800 customers. “The big difference is that we also have the A330neo, which we can also offer. [It’s] a slightly smaller aircraft than the [A350] – 900 in very competitive conditions,” said Mr. Bregier, notably declaring that, “[I]n this segment, the A330neo is more cost efficient than the A350-800. So I believe that all of our customers will elect either to upgrade to the -900, or move into the [A330] neo.
On top of that, as you could see, the A330neo entry into service comes pretty early. So we can match the requirements from our customers.”
That proclamation of the A330neo’s superiority alone gave observers tacit confirmation that the A350-800 for all intents and purposes is dead. It will no longer be offered (seriously) to customers, and Airbus will focus its efforts and resources on the A330neo in such sales campaigns.
In an interview with Airways conducted Monday at the airshow, A350 program head Didier Evrard avoided direct confirmation of the A350-800’s end, but re-iterated the spirit of Mr. Bregier’s comments: “The A330neo is just launched today,” said Mr. Evrard, “It’s a perfect follow up of the A330 for all regional applications. The A350 has a different positioning, which is long range.”
Mr. Evrard further went on to state that “[t]he priorities of the [Airbus] group are the -900 and the -1000, because this is where the market’s priorities are. The A330 has its own positioning. If you go back to 2006, the A330 was going to be stopped in 2011/2012. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Therefore continuing to improve this very successful product is just a natural thing.”
Once again, Mr. Evrard’s comments point sharply towards the end of the A350-800. The A350-800 is currently scheduled for entry into service (EIS) in 2016, with the A350-1000 following a year later. At the very least, Airbus can be expected to reverse the order of the two aircraft, fast-tracking the development of the more popular A350-1000.
Still, he stopped short of uttering a confirmation of the variant’s demise, likely because doing so would trigger painful financial concessions in existing purchase contracts. “And meanwhile, we’ll continue developing the A350 family, the -900, the -1000, and the -800 is still part of the family. So I can’t see any problem, or any overlap today that is detrimental to the A350 at all.”
With the launch of the A330neo, Airbus has an extremely comprehensive wide-body product offering from 250 to 400 seats. Indeed, contrasting with his praise of the A350’s potential to service long range operations, Mr. Evrard made sure to compliment the A330neo as an excellent companion for the two larger A350 variants.
“The A330neo is the perfect aircraft for 5,000 nautical miles, regional, long regional missions. It is absolutely the right thing to do”