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With A330neo, Airbus gives new life to an older jet

New jets get a lot of attention at the Farnborough airshow, but Airbus believes there's demand for an older plane revamped with new, more efficient engines.

A computer rendering of the Airbus A330-900neo
A computer rendering of the Airbus A330-900neo Airbus

FARNBOROUGH, England -- Airbus Group launched its A330neo on Monday at the Farnborough International Airshow here, bringing new engines and new aerodynamics to an older passenger jet to cut fuel consumption by 14 percent.

The France-based company announced two medium-haul models, the A330-800neo and A330-900neo, both using Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 engines. Another efficiency improvement comes from wider, more aerodynamic wings equipped with "sharklet" winglets at the ends of its wings. They were adapted from Airbus' new A350 XWB -- a high-tech new model that in some cases will be effectively replaced by the refurbished A330neo.

Although the A330neo isn't a total surprise, Airbus only now revealed that its board voted in favor of the idea over the weekend. It's big news for the airshow -- a major aerospace industry event where airlines spend a week scrutinizing the latest planes and placing orders years in advance.

The company hadn't planned the model, but "enormous" customer demand caused it to reconsider, Airbus said Monday at a press conference here.

"We expect to sell at least 1,000 of these A330neo," said Fabrice Brégier, CEO of the Airbus division of Airbus Group. It will deliver the first A330-900neo in December 2017 and the first A330-800neo in early 2018.

The A330neo will increase the company's development costs from 2015 through 2017, but ultimately will improve Airbus Group profits, said Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus Group, the military and passenger aircraft maker formerly called EADS.

"The A330 is a very important margin contributor," Enders said in a statement. "It's also one of the most reliable and efficient commercial aircraft ever."

It competes against Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, another twin-aisle jet with a major focus on fuel efficiency. The 242-passenger 787-8 is in widespread use and Boeing just delivered its first 280-passenger 787-9, which it's showing off for the first time at the Farnborough show this week.

Boeing skeptical

Boeing is skeptical about Airbus' claims of 14 percent better fuel efficiency, said Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing's commercial airplane division, in a press conference here Sunday. He suggested Airbus might be comparing the A330neo to older craft.

"We understand where you can go with wing technology. We think that would be extraordinarily optimistic," Tinseth said.

Airbus rebutted Boeing's stance, though, and Brégier said the A330neo's fuel economy is "equivalent" to the 787's.

On a 4,600-mile trip, the A330neo uses 12 percent less fuel per plane. And per passenger, the efficiency climbs to 14 percent, in part because it accommodates 10 more passengers in its redesigned form because of reconfigured lavatories and crew galley areas.

The new engine is larger, heavier, and less aerodynamic, but the efficiency more than makes up for those drawbacks. The wingspan is 3.7 meters (12 feet) wider at 64m total (210 feet) and features new "sharklet" winglets named after their resemblance to shark dorsal fins. The neo also is 5 percent cheaper to operate, said Chief Operating Officer John Leahy.

"The real bottom line is we can offer it at very very attractive pricing," Leahy said.

And Leahy was eager to point out that the A330neo seats are 18 inches wide compared to 16.9 inches on Boeing's 787.

The A330neo effectively replaces the A350-800 in the marketplace, a jet for which Airbus has only a comparatively small 34 orders, Brégier said. But the larger A350-900 has better prospects: Its range is 1,726 miles longer than the A330-900neo, and it can fit nine passengers across instead of just eight, said Chief Operating Officer John Leahy.

The A330neo planes also modernized cockpit controls, Airbus said. For passengers, a modernized interior will support 3D movies, colorful LED-based mood lighting, and ports for connecting electronic devices.

Agile Airbus?

Designing, testing, certifying, and building the jet in three-and-a-half years is a faster development cycle for Airbus. In contrast, the existing A320neo took five years, he added.

"I want an Airbus that is agile and faster in decision-making," Brégier said.

In contrast to top-to-bottom redesign of the A350, Airbus is eager for smaller, more frequent updates. "Yes, we are launching brand-new products like the A350 [but] we are looking for faster incremental improvements. This is one of the best examples we could do," Brégier said. "The business case, I can confirm, is an excellent one."