x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Airbus bows to pressure from Gulf's big airlines

Gulf airlines with billions of dollars worth of wide-body Airbus aircraft on order have pushed the plane maker radically change the A350-1000 jet.

Qatar Airways, Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways have 65 orders for the A350-1000 jet. Eric Piermont / AFP
Qatar Airways, Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways have 65 orders for the A350-1000 jet. Eric Piermont / AFP

Gulf airlines with billions of dollars worth of wide-body Airbus aircraft on order have succeeded in pushing the plane maker to make radical changes to the A350-1000 jet.

Qatar Airways, Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways have 65 orders for the jet, out of a regional total of 75 worth almost US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn), and had been asking for significant changes to the aircraft's design to enable it to fly further and carry heavier loads.

The three airlines have more than $100bn worth of aircraft on order in total as they build up their Middle East hubs to carry transcontinental traffic between Asia, the West and Africa.

This week executives from the European aircraft maker said the A350-1000 would be delayed by two years to 2017 as Rolls-Royce develops an engine with more thrust.

Airbus had been faced with losing out to Boeing for additional orders for long-haul jets such as the US manufacturer's popular 777-300ER, which forms the backbone of Gulf airline fleets such as at Emirates.

The updates "unequivocally assure the A350-1000's position as the most efficient aircraft in its category", said Fabrice Bregier, the chief operating officer for Airbus.

Analysts quickly pointed to the influence of the Gulf airlines, which are expected to buy hundreds more aircraft in the coming years as they build up their networks globally.

"These GCC carriers want fuel-efficient airplanes that will form the backbone of their fleets and expansion for years to come - and if Airbus were to lose any orders from any of these three players, it would likely spell the death-knell for the A350-1000 programme," said Saj Ahmad, an aviation analyst based in the UK and a blogger at FBE Aerospace.

"For Airbus to go back to the drawing board for the A350-1000, whose firm definition was supposed to have been frozen by the end of 2011, speaks volumes about the need to keep Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways on board the programme."

The changes come after increasing concerns from Emirates and Qatar Airways in recent weeks that the Airbus jet would be less capable than the rival Boeing 777-300ER.

Qatar Airways asked Airbus to make changes to the A350-1000 to give it "increased take-off weight and increased range", said Akbar al Baker, its chief executive.

Tim Clark, the president of Emirates, said this month the Airbus jet was a "very good" aircraft but it still did not rival the Boeing 777. "Some say the A350-1000 needs to take on more weight and thrust and I believe that to be the case," he said.

"Emirates has been highly critical of the way the A350-1000 has been developing, in part because even this updated variant will still not allow the airline to fly with a full load of passengers and cargo to the US non-stop," Mr Ahmad said.

Rolls-Royce aims to increase the power of the Trent engine from 93,000 pounds of thrust to 97,000 pounds through several extensive changes, including new high-temperature turbine technology, increasing the size of the engine core and advanced fan aerodynamics.

The A350 family of jets has two other variants, the 800 and 900. Airbus has also pushed back the delivery date for the 800 version, the smallest of the three with 270 seats, after most of its customers switched their orders to the launch variant, the 900.

Qatar Airways is the launch customer for all three versions of the plane.

igale@thenational.ae