WASHINGTON — Developing a new commercial plane is a costly and time-consuming process that requires a lot of technical expertise, and there is no guarantee of success, as demonstrated by the Airbus A380, which was only produced for a short period of time.

The iconic superjumbo couldn't earn back the $20 billion it cost to develop before it was discontinued in 2019. This is why the aerospace industry nowadays prefers to modify, lengthen, and redesign existing models at a much lower cost rather than creating entirely new aircraft types.

The Airbus A320neo, which features new fuel-efficient engines, became the best-selling narrowbody aircraft since it entered service in 2016 thanks to the European planemaker's lower-risk approach. The longer A321 model and its long-range variants, such as the A321LR and A321XLR, continue to attract airline operators who want a slightly larger plane with more flight range and passenger capacity but want to avoid the operating cost of a widebody aircraft.

Now, it appears that Airbus is planning to use the same strategy for its smaller A220 model, which it acquired from Bombardier a few years ago when the Canadian aircraft manufacturer was forced to sell its troubled aircraft program to the European aerospace giant following a legal dispute with Boeing.

This time, however, Boeing does not have a similar option, leaving it vulnerable against its European rival. Burdened with $57 billion in debt and the ongoing consequences of two crashes involving its 737 MAX model, the American aircraft manufacturer recently admitted that it will not design a new aircraft in the next ten years.

Boeing once stated there was enough demand in the market to justify developing a completely new aircraft design, referred to as the New Midsize Airplane (NMA) or the Boeing 797.

The idea behind the new concept was to serve the following purposes for Boeing:

-  A plane with a capacity of 225-275 passengers, featuring two aisles, seven seats per row, and intended to replace the Boeing 767.

- A plane capable of competing with the new Airbus A321XLR, which is the longest-range narrowbody jet proposed so far.

Boeing never publicly committed to any specific details about this concept, but it is known that the company has been working on it for some time.

The program was finally shelved due to a number of factors, including the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAXs worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the delays in the 777X program.

This inability to compete will give Airbus a significant advantage as it seeks to outmaneuver its US rival in the market for single-aisle aircraft, which is the most profitable segment of the industry.

Two months ago, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury stated that it is only a matter of time before the company moves forward with the A220-500, allegedly a higher-capacity variant of the Airbus A220 Family. The A220 is currently available in two models: the A220-100, which seats up to 137 passengers, and the A220-300, which seats up to 150–160 passengers. 

The A220 is known for its fuel efficiency, spacious cabin, and advanced avionics. It is used on both short- and medium-haul routes by airlines around the world. The A220-500 would probably increase the model's capacity to as many as 175 seats.

Picture Credit: airdatanews.com

The A220-500 may have a shorter flight range than that of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, but it would be able to transport a similar number of passengers at a lower operating cost.

If Airbus decides to launch the so-called A220-500 program and it succeeds, it could further shift the dominance of the profitable market for short-haul jets toward Europe.

Airbus has been able to increase the size and range of its A320 Family jets to a level that the 737 MAX currently cannot match, which has contributed to its success in the narrowbody sector. However, the European manufacturer has also benefited from the 20-month grounding of the 737 MAX following two fatal crashes that it involved in less than six months.

For some time, airlines have been demanding a narrowbody aircraft that can transport more passengers over longer routes. The A321neo and its long-range variants quickly became popular among operators as they can accommodate up to 244 passengers.

As airlines stopped ordering the 180-seat, less fuel-efficient A320ceo variants, the company now has an opportunity to provide a newer-generation mid-size narrowbody alternative with the A220-500 program.

The A220-500 would compete directly with the 737 MAX 8, which is the only single-aisle model that has been selling well for Boeing since demand returned once US regulators approved the safety upgrades and lifted the flight ban in November 2020.

Boeing claims that the success of the MAX series, as demonstrated by the 1,400 orders it has received since being cleared to fly again, is a result of the versatility and commonality of the aircraft with existing previous-generation 737s in the airlines' fleets.

On the other hand, the A220-500 could provide Airbus with a 13% efficiency advantage over the MAX 8 on a per-seat basis. This significant cost saving, particularly in the current environment of high fuel prices and increasing pressure on airlines to reduce emissions, could give Airbus a competitive advantage.

The new model would allow Airbus to continue receiving orders while it works through a backlog of over 6,100 planes for the A320neo Family jets, a process that would take around eight years to complete with the current production rate. This backlog is discouraging some airlines from making new aircraft purchases at this time.

Despite its advantages, the A220-500 could be a risky bet for Airbus since it has the potential to divert sales from Airbus's best-selling A320neo, which is priced $20 million higher than the current A220. For this reason, the European aircraft manufacturer may need to ensure a smooth transition.