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Airbus’ A330 was born in the shadow the A340, an aircraft intended to be the long-haul workhorse in the Airbus stable. The A330 would be the medium-range aircraft.

The A330 and A340 were developed simultaneously and derived from the A300. The A330 and A340 were launched in 1987, with EIS in 1994 and 1993. The A330 was the first Airbus that had a choice of engines from all three engine makers.

But the development of the Boeing 777 and further acceptance of long-range, twin-engine over-water operations eventually doomed the four-engine A340 and prompted Airbus to upgrade the A330 to long-range operations never envisioned when the plane was designed.
The following table illustrates this.

The A330-200 has seen a 3.5% increase in MTOW while achieving over 8.7% more range.  The A330-300 has seen its MTOW rise by 10.9% but its range is now up 43.6% from EIS.

Clearly the A330-300 is now a significantly more capable airplane.  This capability growth occurred at a perfect time.  Airlines have been repeatedly hit by exogenous shocks.  Between 1996 and 1998 it was the Asian financial crisis, then came 9/11, 2004 through 2005 brought us SARS, from 2006 to 2007 fuel prices peaked to all-time highs and in 2008 through 2009 came the global recession.

On top of this, came the Boeing 787 production delays from 2008, giving Airbus the time and the ability to improve the A332 and A333, boosting sales sharply.  The enhanced A330 entered service in 2004 so had been decided before the 787 was even launched.  However having a mature product when the 787 got itself into a pickle was great timing.  The enhanced A330s proved fortuitous: the right airplane with the right improvements at the right time at the right price and with the ability to be delivered on a timely basis. Airlines that needed long range twins had no options – there was only the A330 to buy (and get a delivery).

Even as Boeing’s 787 program was struggling, Airbus kept improving the A330. Airbus was able to deliver its A330 as airlines were scrambling to find better fuel burning lift in the long range twin market.   Boeing’s 767 was uncompetitive and its 777 too large.  Airbus had a product it could deliver on a highly predictable schedule and it started to build its customer base.  In the midst of so much market uncertainty, the A330 was a predictable source of lift. It was a well-known and understood product.

The following chart illustrates this. The green circles illustrate how Airbus capitalized on 787 delays with customers ordering the A330 as airline patience started to run out with repeated delays.

It turns out that the A330 may be much more influential to Airbus’ success than is typically recognized. The A330 has been crucial to Airbus’s financial results in the past half-decade. This, along with the A320, provided the cash flow to a company drained by the A380, A400M and A350 programs. The following chart shows the steady increase in production that provides the cash flow and contributions to the meager profits reported.

This is probably why recently Airbus’ John Leahy championed the program’s success. With the demise of the A340, the factory that built both airplanes now focuses on the A330.  So Airbus is talking of growing production 11 airplanes per month.

Airbus also contends the A330 has stacked up well against the 777 and the 787. The A330-300 is sized about the same as the 777-200; the A330-200 is somewhat larger than the 787-9 and substantially larger than the 787-8.

We would point out, however, that with an order backlog stretching to 2017 and repeated delays, Boeing could hardly be expected to book many 787 sales during this period, whether by quantity or new customers.

Still, Airbus’ performance is impressive by any standard. The A330 now has more than 1,000 orders, an achievement that places it in the same class as the 747 (1,500), 767 (>1,000) and 777 (>1,000).

Just as the A330 cut short the 767 program’s success, Boeing has said their 787 would cut short the A330’s success.  Boeing Capital MD, Kostya Zolotusky, has said that the 787 “will do to the A330 what the 777 did to the A340.? In 2010 Nicole Piasecki, vice president of Business Development & Strategic Integration, said “…I can tell you if we develop a 787-10, which I would put in the likelier category, I would expect the A330’s days would be numbered…” However, even as the 787 is a new generation airplane with compelling capabilities, its target continues to evolve.

Airbus is considering adding sharklets to the A330, undertaking an engine PIP and increasing MTOW once again, potentially giving the airplane even greater range and reducing fuel burn. Such a performance growth will mean the 787’s target will have moved once again—and that is what Boeing intends with the 787-10X.

In addition to delivering an increasingly capable airplane, Airbus also has the ability to be creative on pricing. Whereas Boeing is trying to recover is investment on the 787 and reluctantly works on discounts, Airbus’ A330 program is far down the investment recovery path.  Airlines faced with a choice of a new generation 787, with 20% better fuel burn, could be persuaded to order an A330 discounted by 50% to be economically equal.  Moreover this A330 would almost certainly be delivered before the 787. Even as Boeing is able to offer newer technology, one cannot dismiss the A330 just yet.

If one looks back over the recent decade and considers the tremendous shocks airlines have had to face, perhaps we can explain the A330’s success.

  • 787 delays
  • Airbus significantly improved the A330’s performance
  • The A330 was available and would be delivered on time
  • The A330 was a design that allowed for continuous improvements that lead to the ability to grow the aircraft’s capability whilst very much minimizing any rise in costs
  • Airbus could price the A330 to acquire customers because the program had achieved its breakeven point
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