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Airbus, Boeing considering medium range wide-bodies

The world’s largest aircraft manufacturers – Airbus and Boeing – are seriously considering medium range versions of their popular twin jets as some customers say the current offerings have, “too much range” for routes of 5,000 to 8,000 kilometres.

Boeing 787 (left) and Airbus A330 (right).

Boeing 787 (left) and Airbus A330 (right).

If the medium range wide-bodies become a reality, both Airbus and Boeing would be going full circle to the early days of wide-body twin jets. The first Airbus A300 – launched in 1972 – had a range of less than 6,000km. The Boeing 767-200 has a range of 7,000km.

Reports from the ongoing Singapore Air Show indicate that Boeing is studying the feasibility of a medium-range jetliner similar in size to the 787. A Boeing official said that the study was driven by, “strong customer interest.”

Last September, Airbus announced plans for a new, lower weight variant of its A330-300 wide-body. “The new lower weight A330-300 variant is Airbus’ solution for markets with large populations and fast growing, concentrated air traffic flows,” said Fabrice Bregier, President and CEO of Airbus.

Flying an aircraft specially designed for short to medium routes could be more cost effective than having long range aircraft on such routes. A medium range wide-body will have a lower maximum take off weight (MTOW) due to reduced fuel-carrying capacity compared to the long range variants. Reduction in the MTOW means that the aircraft can carry the same amount of passengers and cargo with derated engines that burn less fuel.

Medium range wide-bodies could be popular with airlines in East Asia, Europe and North America where wide-bodies are often used on domestic and regional routes. Airlines from those regions have been telling Airbus and Boeing that they don’t really need the range offered by current wide-bodies. For instance, the 1,100km Beijing to Shanghai route has enough passenger demand for a large jet, but operating an aircraft capable of doing 15,000km on a short flight could be uneconomical.

Narrow body aircraft such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 face capacity limits depending on weather conditions and seasonal spikes in demand. The ideal aircraft for short-medium, high density routes is the Boeing 757, but production ceased in 2004 and no western manufacturer has offered a replacement. The Russian-built Tupolev Tu-204 has similar characteristics to the 757 but has failed to attract much interest outside Russia.

Critics say Airbus and Boeing are building long range aircraft to accommodate the demands of Persian Gulf carriers which have been making large orders in recent years. Emirates, for example, is the largest operator of both the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380. The Gulf carriers need long range aircraft that can fly non-stop to and from their hubs in the Middle East.

As aircraft technology evolves, the definition of “short”, “medium” and “long” range has also evolved. In 1970, a long range aircraft was one that could fly beyond 5,000km. Today, 10,000km range is considered a standard feature for wide-bodies. Some versions of the Boeing 737, designed as a regional jet in the 1960s, can do over 7,000km today.

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