When Boeing’s 777-9 enters service toward the end of this decade, the 406-seater will be the largest offering in the popular twin-engine, wide-body jet category. Not to be outgunned by its American rival, European plane-maker Airbus is now shopping around its own 400-seat twin-engine jetliner, escalating an ongoing competition to build the world’s biggest twin-engine commercial jet.
Airbus (EADSY) is reportedly seeking airliner support for a new variant of its A350 wide-body with extended seating capacity and better seat mile economics than the 777-9, an Airbus sales rep tells Reuters. The 777-9 already proved itself a commercial success for Boeing (BA), notching more than 250 orders since 2013 from airlines like Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, and Qatar Airways.
Dubbed the A350-8000 for now, the new Airbus jet would target airlines that need high-capacity, long-range aircraft but not necessarily require the same high-performance characteristics that have made the 777-9 so popular with Middle Eastern airlines. (The Gulf region can be hard on an airliner.) Airbus’s current A350 variants seat approximately 360 passengers at most, and a higher capacity twin jet would help Airbus compete for customers requiring high-capacity jets but don’t want to make the leap up to Airbus’s four-engine, double-decker A380—currently the world’s largest passenger airliner.
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But building a larger airliner isn’t as simple as stretching the fuselage and bolting in some additional seats. Assuming Airbus finds enough airline support to justify pursuing the A350-8000 beyond the drawing board, it will have to convince engine maker Rolls-Royce to develop a new derivative of the engine slated for the A350-1000, currently the largest of the A350 variants. The first flight of the A350-1000 is slated for the second half of this year.
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Rolls-Royce may not have the bandwidth or budget to do so, and it could prove an expensive proposition—like half-a-billion dollars expensive, by one estimate. But that investment could be worth it in the long-term. While orders for Airbus’s massive A380 have been far softer than the company anticipated, the market for high-capacity, twin-engine jets is valued at around $1.9 trillion over the next two decades.
The company is expected to provide an update on the A350-8000s future at the Farnborough International Air Show outside of London in July.