The Airbus A220 Takes Aim at the 737 MAX
Matthew Greenwood posted on November 04, 2019 |
Increasing the passenger jet’s capacity could make it an appealing alternative to the MAX.

As the Boeing 737 MAX crisis drags on, Airbus is positioning its A220 as the plane to fill in the gap left by the MAX’s absence.

Airbus—Boeing’s long-time rival—is hoping to capitalize on the grounding of its competitor’s aircraft. As airlines increasingly look elsewhere for a narrow-body jet to take the MAX’s place, the A220 becomes more viable.

Formerly known as the Bombardier CSeries, the aircraft was a prize acquisition by Airbus when it bought control of Bombardier’s commercial jet program in 2018 and renamed it the A220.

The single-aisle passenger jet comes in two variants: the baseline -100 version, with a 135-passenger capacity, and the -300, which can carry 160 people. The A220 occupies a unique niche in the commercial airline industry; it’s larger than regional jets but smaller than the 737 and the Airbus A320.

The CSeries already posed a threat to the 737 MAX before Airbus bought Bombardier. The Canadian company had loaded the plane with the latest technologies, making it more efficient and cheaper to operate than Boeing’s MAX, which has its origins in the 1960s. The A220 has engines that are dramatically more fuel efficient—at least 20 percent, according to Airbus—and is made of lighter composites instead of metal. This enables the A220 to make up to 11 domestic flights a day, with a turnaround time at gates of 35 minutes.

Its cockpit includes state-of-the-art fly-by-wire flight controls, which are preferred by pilots. And passengers like the comfortable seats, quiet modern cabin and spacious luggage capacity—comforts normally only found on bigger jets like the A350 or 787.

Private tour of the A220.

But making such a stellar aircraft drove Bombardier to the financial brink, and Airbus took the opportunity to sweep in and take a 51 percent stake in the program.

Since then, however, sales of the A220 have been lackluster—but Airbus expects sales to increase as the MAX spends longer and longer stuck on the tarmac. The company had 536 firm orders and 65 aircraft deliveries by the end of March 2019. In addition, Airbus is opening a new assembly line in Mobile, Ala., to deliver the aircraft to U.S. customers while avoiding costly tariffs.

But Airbus will need to increase the A220’s capacity if it wants to take on more short- and medium-haul flights—and really move in on the MAX’s territory.

Bombardier had already considered expanding the pane’s capacity and range when it was designing the CSeries, fitting it with a wing that would be able to handle a larger variant of the jet. And Airbus continues to explore this possibility.

Earlier this year the European plane manufacturer added an option to increase the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) by an extra 5,000 pounds thanks to a bigger fuel tank and an adjustment to existing structural and systems. The upgrade would be available in 2020.

“This new MTOW will allow operators to reach markets, which today cannot be served by other small single-aisle aircraft types,” said Airbus Chief Commercial Officer Christian Scherer.

The new MTOW would increase the A220’s range by around 500 miles: the -100 would increase its range to 3,900 miles and the -300 to 3,980 miles—long enough to fly from New York to London’s Heathrow. Currently the longest route flown by an A220 is airBaltic’s Riga-Abu Dhabi flight—a 2,359-mile journey.

The A220 has also been granted extended travel operation (ETOPS), bringing the aircraft a significant step closer to taking on transatlantic routes. “We have approvals for transatlantic flights with the A220, and we can fly in both directions without any load restrictions,” said Rob Dewar, chief engineer of the A220 program. “We have a fantastic cabin and the necessary payload for long-haul routes, and we could fly the A220 as early as 2020 or 2021,” Dewar noted.

These measures could bring the A220 more directly into competition with Boeing’s troubled MAX plane. A long-range A220 could service lucrative new routes between the U.S. and Europe, and regionally in the Americas, flying to smaller cities that don’t normally attract enough passengers for larger aircraft.

“We’ve had requests from customers to increase the range of the A220,” said Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury. “Point-to-point flying is bound to keep increasing, which offers very strong growth potential for the A220.”

Air France-KLM in particular sees a larger variant as a key component of its restructured flight operations. Korean Air wants to expand its flight network in the Pacific using the A220. And in a move heavy with symbolism, Ethiopian Airlines is working to finalize a deal with Airbus to purchase 20 A220s. The airline—Africa’s largest—was one of two carriers affected by fatal crashes of the 737 MAX.

And David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue, is planning to launch a new airline based on the A220—and has been in discussions with Airbus about a long-range version of the aircraft. Neeleman seems to be betting that it will be more efficient to fill a smaller, fuel-efficient aircraft with passengers than trying to fill a bigger widebody plane.

In addition, Airbus is pitching the A220 to the lucrative Chinese market as it works with the country’s regulator on certification.

If the A220 starts crowding in on the 737 MAX’s turf, it could mean more than just the latest punch-counterpunch between Airbus and Boeing: it could give Airbus an important competitive advantage over its long-time rival, and could potentially reshape the commercial aviation market.

Read more about Airbus’ plans for the A220 at Airbus Breaks Ground on New A220 Factory—On Boeing’s Turf.


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