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With no plans for an aircraft launch any time soon, what options will Boeing have when Airbus launches a stretch A220, called the A220-500?

Early in November, Boeing poured cold water over any suggestion of a new airliner launch before 2030. The company’s CEO said that they won’t even “go to the drawing board this decade”. Any new airliner that Boeing launches won’t enter service before the middle of the 2030s. That statement satisfied many Boeing investors, previously worried about the company’s handling of existing aircraft programs.

Will The A220-500 Threaten The 737-8 (soon)?

Image: Boeing

But the same statement disappointed many others, who feel that Boeing is already falling too far behind Airbus. And according to some analysts, Boeing needs to pay more attention to the prospect of an Airbus A220-500. This is a variant of the A220 that Airbus has been mulling over for some time. Even Bombardier thought about it, then calling it the CS500.

 

A220-500 – Almost Ready?

The wing of the CSeries/A220 had the size and performance for such a stretch variant to work. It WILL need more powerful engines. But given enough time, it should be possible to squeeze the necessary power out of the P&W GTF engines. Or, Airbus may be talking to CFM, for a second engine option for the A220-500 and the rest of the family.

Will The A220-500 Threaten The 737-8 (soon)?

The smaller CS100 (later A220-100) in testing. Photo: Alexandre Gouger, CC BY-SA 3.0

In a recent Bloomberg article, analysts point out that it is wrong to fixate on a comparison between the larger single-aisle jets: the A321neo, the 737 MAX-10, or a possible future New Mid-size Airplane (NMA). It was questions on this topic that prompted Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun to say that he doesn’t want a new aircraft that will only rival Airbus in a specific market niche.

But what about the A220-500? With a projected 175-seat single-class capacity, it wouldn’t quite reach the size of the 737-8 (189 seats). The 737-8 is Boeing’s biggest seller in the 737 MAX family. But the new Airbus would be close enough to the Boeing for the airlines to consider. And according to analysts at the AirInsight group, this new Airbus could have a 13% per-seat efficiency advantage over the 737-8.

An A220-300 during assembly. Photo: Airbus

 

A220-500 – A Production Question

Other analysts dispute this number. Despite its troubled entry into the market, the 737 MAX is a very efficient aircraft. The sales it has achieved since the ungrounding attest to that and they have been key in Boeing’s recovery. But if the longer A220-500 really has a 13% (or a bit less) edge over the MAX, its launch would find Boeing without a competitive single-aisle, right at the business end of the market.

Even so, Airbus is in no hurry to launch this aircraft. For some, this is because the stretch variant could steal sales from the A320neo. But this is a bit misleading. There is much more demand now for the A321neo and its subvariants. Airbus now uses the same finish assembly lines (FALs) for all A320-family aircraft (this wasn’t always the case). So if A320neo orders were switched to a new A220-500, Airbus would have more production capacity for the more popular A321neo.

Will The A220-500 Threaten The 737-8 (soon)?

The A220-300. Photo: Airbus

The more likely reason why Airbus is taking its time is that it wants to streamline the A220’s production in general. The aircraft isn’t as profitable as the rest of Airbus’ lineup, with Airbus chasing improvements in production techniques and supplier contracts. Also, the production capacity of the A220 is nowhere near that of the A320 family.

 

A Development War (that Boeing is losing)

So, before Airbus can offer an A220-500, it has to be able to make it in large numbers – and profitably. The question is, how would Boeing respond to this? As the development of the CSeries/A220 showed, launching an all-new single-aisle with new materials, is a time-consuming process.

Image: Air France

For now, Boeing is more than happy with the sales of the 737 MAX – certification worries about the larger 737-10 non-withstanding. The aircraft scored 1,400 new orders since its ungrounding, late in 2020. However, some of these orders may not have been entirely new – some came from airlines that had previously canceled other 737 MAX orders.

Airbus expects the A220 family to break even sometime in the middle of this decade. So for now, the questions we have are these: will Airbus sort out the A220’s production/supply issues before Boeing is ready to launch a new single-aisle? And if so, how much before? Also, will that new Boeing be a 737 MAX replacement, that would rival the A220-500, or will Boeing go for something bigger?

Source: Bloomberg