Airbus has a little bit of a problem. Emphasis on little. It now has two aircraft on its books that occupy the same size category, and a future in demand project that threatens to cannibalize the very cash cow A320 that put them on the map. What are these aircraft and what can be done about it? Let’s explore the tricky Airbus small plane problem.
Airbus makes many different planes, both big and small. However, one side of their product line is starting to get a bit too heavy and that’s all thanks to overinvestment in a certain category. To explain, we need to dive back into the history books.
After Airbus launched the A300, they looked at developing a new smaller aircraft for travel within Europe and for airlines in North America called the Airbus A320. Some airlines requested a smaller plane with a greater range that they could use for hops between smaller cities, and Airbus partnered up with Singapore and China to develop the new type.
This new aircraft, code named the AE31X would fly 125 passengers in a 2-3 configuration to a range of 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 kilometers). Unfortunately, the deal fell through and Airbus decided to go for it alone – they shrunk the A320 airframe to fit the market demand without doing a clean sheet design.
The two models they created were the A318 and A319 and they would be able to fly 136 passengers to a bigger range of 3,100 nautical miles (5,740 km). Airbus would sell a few of these aircraft, notably to Air France who would fall in love with the Airbus A318 baby bus.
However, flash-forward to modern times to the arrival of Bombardier – With gusto, this Canadian firm got to work building a new type of aircraft called the CS300, a modern 100-seater plane to rival Brazil’s Embraer and fill in an important market niche left abandoned by local North American plane maker, Boeing.
Boeing didn’t take this move well, despite not being in the market category since the early Boeing 737s, they still moved to block the sale of the new plane in the United States. This move was a major blow to the Canadian firm who had just secured a huge delta order. With the US market now totally inaccessible, it looked like this was the end before it even began.
However, there was one way for Bombardier to get its CS300, and smaller version the CS100, in the United States – if the aircraft was technically built there then it would be considered a domestic product and no longer trade embargoed.
If not Boeing, then the only other firm with sites to build planes would be Airbus with their Alabama finishing plant. The aircraft would be primarily built in Canada, before moving down to Mobile to complete production and thus, through a loophole enter the US market.
The A220 series
This came at a huge cost, with Airbus acquiring the majority share of the CS program and naming rights – calling the new plane the Airbus A220 series.
The plane would be revolutionary, compared to the Airbus A320 series, it would travel just as a far and be more fuel efficient – although not carrying as many passengers.
Specifically, the A220-300 has a range of 3,400 nautical miles (6,297 km) and can carry up to 150 passengers in its most dense configuration, while the A318 and A319 can fly up 3,750 nautical miles (6,945 km). We should also mention that the A220 has a more comfortable interior with a larger space inside and a different 2-3 configuration, allowing couples some privacy in flight. The plane also has a multitude of other improvements from LED lighting, quieter cabin and better pressurization that make it the next generation aircraft compared to the older A320 platform.
While in earlier times that lower A220 passenger load factor might have been a deal breaker for some airlines, in the age of 2020 and the aviation crisis, airlines have more than ever asked for efficiency over passengers. A smaller plane that can go further is easier to fill up and make profitable than a lumbering aircraft – essentially the very same reason why aircraft like the Boeing 787 and A350 are favored over the A380 and Boeing 747.
A220 vs A320
But this is where the problem gets more interesting. These two aircraft cater to the same range and passenger market and it’s left Airbus in a situation where the promotion of either will cannibalize the sales of another. After all, rival Boeing doesn’t compete in the market so apart from other small plane maker Embraer, Airbus is only stealing customers from themselves.
And clearly looking at the sale numbers, airlines prefer the newer A220 with all the advantages of newer engines, modern cabin designs, and a better fuel economy. So much so that some airlines have asked for a stretch of the original A220-300 design. A major buyer of the small A318 baby bus, Air France, even mentioned the A220-500 stretch in a recent investor meeting as part of its fleet modernization strategy.
This A220-500 stretch would cover the inherent flaw of fewer seats on the A220 model and push the seats up to a maximum of 170 in a dense configuration – with an increased range to boot. But it would mean than the A220 series would now not only bite into the A318 and A319, but the A320 series as well.
Airbus has already committed to a new engine option of both the A319, A320 and A321, an investment it doesn’t want to see go to waste with a new A220. But it might not be able to stand in the way of market demand, with the likes of not only Air France, but airBaltic and Delta keen to pick up the stretch version of the aircraft.
And according to very recent news, Air France plans to make a move to buy the A220-500 stretch as soon as it can …. or it will swing right over and buy the Boeing 737 MAX instead.
“If Airbus decides to make a larger version of the A220, that could make sense. Of course, now that the MAX is flying again, we could look at that. And, of course, there’s always the A321, the LR and the XLR.”
But perhaps it’s not so bad. After all, the A320 order backlog is so huge that many airlines that have ordered the A320neo still have many years to wait before they see their aircraft in the sky. The A220 series avoids that problem by being of a different production line with its own supply chain – they could offer it as an alternative to airlines who don’t want to wait for the A320. After all, it’s better to have money in hand than a potential future sum that may never come to fruition.
Lastly, there is the matter of the third and very unknown project called Airbus NSR or the New Short-Range project. This aircraft is supposed to be in development to replace the A320 family and usher in a new era of aircraft by 2030 – but with the A220 nipping at the heels of the small plane market, it is unlikely airbus is keen open a third product line.
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