Long-haul flagship

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The A350-1000 will be Airbus’ highest-capacity airliner once A380 production ends.
A Doumenjou/Airbus

With the A350 now Airbus’ flagship long-haul airliner after the company axed the A380, there is likely to be renewed attention on the potential future evolution of the European twin-jet as it becomes the company’s highest-capacity, longest-range product. Airbus last year ruled out stretching the A350-1000, the largest current A350 variant, in the short term. The company had assessed a new variant dubbed the A350-2000 with more capacity (reportedly above 400 seats) and an increased maximum take-off weight, but while the manufacturer said such an aircraft is technically feasible it shelved the concept for the time being.

One reason, company executives said, was that a new generation of more fuel-efficient turbofan engines would not become available until the mid-2020s.

Another important factor cited in putting an A350-2000 on ice was weak demand for the largest twinaisle widebody airliners, a trend reflected by the A380’s demise.

With the A380 axed (no super jumbos will be produced after 2021), the decks in Airbus’ product line-up are now clearer. An A350 with 400-plus seats would clearly have encroached on the super jumbo’s territory, but with the A380 now gone there is an opportunity for Airbus by blending A380-style high capacity and the A350’s twin-engine economics to satisfy requirements at the top of the commercial aircraft market for the largest airliners. Such an aircraft would clearly offer competition to the 777-9, the next-generation Triple Seven due to fly this year and enter service in 2020.

Outgoing Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders recently said Emirates’ decision to order 40 A350-900s, which happened four years after the carrier cancelled a previous order for the type, “is a strong testament that this is a platform seen as highly competitive with a lot of potential”.

Qatar Airways recently said it is interested in an A350 with a higher maximum take-off weight, with the Gulf carrier’s Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al-Baker saying such an aircraft would complement the Boeing 777-9s the carrier has ordered and which will replace the carrier’s A380s from 2024.

Airbus Commercial Aircraft President Guillaume Faury recently acknowledged: “It’s always very important to listen to customers. I’m convinced the A350 has a lot of potential and I’m happy to see that Akbar [Al-Baker] is sharing this point of view.”

Other airlines might be interested in a stretched A350, or at least a package of improvements to the existing A350-1000 to provide extra performance. Qantas, which has challenged Airbus and Boeing to modify their respective A350 and 777 to make possible direct ultra-long-haul flights such as London-Sydney with a full payload, has said it wants to complete a request for proposals this year. The A350’s part in the market for big twin-jets seems like one to watch.