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Airbus Weighs New 400-Seat Jetliner to Compete with Boeing 777

Airbus Group SE A350-900 Tour Arrives At Newark Liberty AirportAirbus Group SE A350-900 Tour Arrives At Newark Liberty Airport
Entertainment screens operate on economy class seats in an Airbus Group SE A350 XWB jet at Newark Liberty Airport on July 16, 2015.Photograph by Michael Nagle—Bloomberg Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.