Airbus and Boeing Finalize Their Future Widebody Plans and One Looks Better Than the Other

With the recent launch of the A330neo, it seems that both Airbus and Boeing have almost fully formed their planned portfolios for the long haul, widebody market. Both companies have created three aircraft families that are expected to serve every airline’s needs. But from a capacity perspective, it looks like Boeing has the more comprehensive option. Airbus might still need some work.

Boeing and Airbus Widebody Capacity

We’ve seen a lot of this come together over the last year. Most recently, Airbus launched the A330neo, but the enhanced Boeing 777X line only firmed up late last year. And the 787-10 didn’t become official until last June. Let’s take a look at how these are supposed to compete with each other.

787 vs A330neo
At the smallest end of the widebody market, we have both the 787 and the A330neo. Originally, Airbus was going to try to use the A350-800 to compete with the smaller 787, but it became very clear that Airbus wasn’t getting a lot of orders and had no interest in making that airplane. So at the Farnborough Airshow, Airbus announced it would spiff up its A330 and offer that to customers. The A330neo will basically take the A330-200 and -300, add -600 to each, and then put on a few more seats. Throw on some new engines, make a few changes to the airplane, and you have a winner. The end result is an airplane that competes with the 787-8 on the small end and falls between the 787-9 and -10 on the upper end.

To me, this move makes sense for Airbus, because now it can go ahead and kill the A350-800 (though that hasn’t officially happened yet). It’s still not perfectly competitive, however. The 787 is a brand new, slightly more efficient airplane. So the tradeoff has to be that an A330neo will cost less than the 787 to make it more attractive. (There are probably also earlier delivery slots available on the A330neo since the 787 has such a big backlog.) Airlines that already operate A330s will be interested. Also, low cost carriers that need an efficient airplane but want lower capital outlay at the beginning will also probably like this plan.

But there’s one other issue for Airbus. The A330-900neo is just about the same capacity as the A350-900. Why have that kind of overlap? The tradeoff here is between price and range. The A330-900neo costs less than the A350-900 but its range is also a short 6,200nm (nautical miles) versus the A350’s 7,750nm. If range matters, you’ll buy the A350. If price matters, you’ll buy the A330. And of course, it also depends on what other needs you have, whether going bigger or smaller, to see which family fits best.

787 vs A350
When the A350 launched, the -900 was bigger than Boeing’s biggest planned 787 (the -9). And then Airbus had the A350-1000 which was going to push into the 350+ seat range. Boeing had a gap, but it wanted to protect sales of the 777, so it wouldn’t grow the 787. Boeing has finally given into pressure and last year committed to the 787-10. At 323 seats, it’s still smaller than the A350, but that’s because Boeing has a bigger airplane that can compete with the A350 on the upper end. We’ll get to that in a minute.

This does hurt Boeing’s chances of selling the smaller 777-200s that exist today, but let’s face it. Those are pretty much dead anyway. Both Airbus and Boeing have good families here, but Airbus serves a slightly larger market.

777X vs A350
Here’s where the biggest issue lies in the Airbus portfolio. Boeing has decided to go forward with the new 777X, and that will be its big widebody twinjet. The -8 will seat 350, about the same size as the A350-1000. But the -9 will seat 400. This gives Boeing a bigger airplane to which Airbus has no answer. Of course, the 777X will be a derivative of the original 777 design so it’s not likely to be the most efficient option at 350 seats.

The A350-1000 should be a rock star in that regard, but if you want something moderately bigger, Airbus has nothing to offer. Just look at Emirates. The airline canceled its order for 50 A350-900s and 20 A350-1000s last month. Then it turned around and ordered 35 777-8Xs and 115 777-9Xs. Emirates, like a lot of airlines, wants to have a mix that skews toward bigger jets. Airbus didn’t have anything to offer in that area. (I’m talking moderately bigger. We’ll get to the behemoths later.)

There’s been plenty of talk about Airbus moving into an A350-1100, and that would compete. But none of that is official at this point. It also remains to be seen if the A350 can be stretched that far and still be an efficient airplane. It wasn’t designed to be that big so there could be some real structural changes required to make it work. I don’t know, but I’m sure the engineers over there do.

747 vs A380
Up at the top end of the market, we still have the A380 and 747-8 lumbering along. Frankly, I don’t see a big future for either of these airplanes. Airbus continues to make noise about lowering raising the floor to allow for more seats. And this whole idea of an A380neo seems crazy to me, though Emirates obviously likes that idea. Other than Emirates, however, there’s just not a ton of demand at the high end. The same goes for Boeing and its 747-8, which hasn’t sold many of those in passenger configuration.

At this point, both airplanes are in production so they should try to sell the heck out of them. But they should realize that there’s a limited shelf life for both. Further development efforts should go into smaller airplanes.


In the end, we have two manufacturers with good options. The only thing that really seems to be lacking is an Airbus twin that can compete with the new 777-9X. If Airbus develops the A350-1100, that solves that problem. Then both manufacturers will have pretty much every tool they need to appeal to nearly every airline. And airlines will be happy to make them beat each other over the head as part of the negotiating process.

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32 Responses to Airbus and Boeing Finalize Their Future Widebody Plans and One Looks Better Than the Other

  1. David SF eastbay says:

    One day the bottom will fall out for Emirates and they will be hurt badly with all the A380’s they keep getting. If another bad situation were to happen in the middle east their traffic would drop and then what would they do.

    It’s the smaller aircraft that seems more interesting, there is still nothing to replace the 757 and there are a lot of markets where an airplane like that is needed. It still amazes me Boeing canned the 757 in the first place with nothing to replace it.

  2. Glen says:

    Yes it looks to me as the 777 X really is a winner I didn’t think it would be but as you say airbus has no answer . The 747 is dead as far more sales go I said this year’s ago on Twitter and I predicted that one year that wouldn’t sell a single one and I was right . They might as well bite the bullet and stop production they must be losing money on this aircraft . The A350 is the queen of the skies now .

  3. Bob says:

    Correction: Airbus looked at RAISING the A380’s main deck floor to go to 11-abreast. This idea was abandoned when they realized 1) no one would want to sit in the middle of the 5-abreast middle section, 2) the change would be very expensive for a small market, and 3) they could get add the extra seats just by rearranging, squeezing, and using smaller lavs, galleys, and closets.

  4. RobH says:

    I don’t see how the -1000 is going to be the ‘rockstar’: it costs more to purchase, has higher DOCs and can go a thousand miles less than the -8X. Seems like the Airbus tribe has ritually sacrificed its own baby

    • CF says:

      RobH – The -8X is far from being able to prove itself. We’ll see if it lives up to its billing. But some airlines may not want to have a 777 and a 787 in the family when they can do the A350-900 and -1000. It should do well for Airbus.

  5. Sanjeev M says:

    That A330neo is definitely gonna sell big time. I wonder what someone like VS might do. They have A333s and incoming 789. Do they go for the A330neo or 788 for the smaller routes? And assuming they still need paves planes to replace 744s they must decide A351 or 77X.

    I think the conclusion is that many airlines will not find 1 for 1 replacements AND have good delivery slots AND fleet commonality. So there will be some upgauging to reduce CASM, let’s hope that doesn’t add unneeded capacity to the market.

  6. JohnG says:

    Like David SF above, I’m curious about the economics/market forces at play in the 757 market – I believe the official line is that the 737-900 effectively replaces that plane but doesn’t it not quite have the range? And what about at the smaller end – thinking of this since my last AA ride for a while was on a Super 80 and because of your recent Hawaiian series mentioning the 717 – what’s out there that serves the former dc9/md-80/90/717 market?

    • I think the other interesting piece is most of the uses for the 757 that are usually called out as not being replaced by the 737-900ER and A321 are uses that airlines started using the airplanes for after Boeing discontinued the line.

    • CF says:

      JohnG – Yeah, the official line is that the 737-900ER replaces the 757 but it can’t do those niche missions which matter so much: Hawai’i and Europe. There has been a lot of talk about Boeing rolling out a 757 MAX type of airplane that would fill the void but nothing has happened yet. I know a lot of airlines that would be very happy.

      As for the MD-80, that’s a 737/A320-sized airplane. In the 717 size category, you have the Embraer 195 and the C-Series trying to play around.

      • aerodawg says:

        I’ve often wondered what it would take for Boeing to refresh the 757 and start churning them out again. New engines plus a new wing and some other relatively minor refinements and I think you’d have a fine airplane.

        • Ben in DC says:

          It would be too expensive for Boeing to restart the 757 line. All of the tooling was destroyed when the line was discontinued, so that would be a huge expense. Also, the space where they used to build them is now a 737 line. The Renton plant barely has room for all the 737s they make, so they’d have to find a new place to build the 757MAX. As much as I’d love to see new 757’s being churned out, it ain’t going to happen

      • billy says:

        The 737-8 and 737-9 NGs are routinely used from west coast U.S. to Hawaii. Transatlantic is a push but the MAX may work on some routes across the pond.

      • Jimbob says:

        There’s been talk of a long range A321 to replace the 757. It’s a big market which Boeing and Airbus haven’t decided to delve back into yet.

  7. Jason H says:

    Although not perfect, there are approximate replacements for the 757, at least in terms of capacity.
    The 737-900ER carries around 180, which is close to the 200 that the 757-200 does, although with shorter range (most/all US domestic flights, but not transatlantic). For the 757-300 (which was never really that popular to begin with, probably due to internal competition with the 767), the 787-8 also seats around 240, and has higher range etc…
    That being said, the 757 does fill a useful role in some airlines’ fleets, but in the end, the lack of orders in the 2000s sort of speaks for its demand in the end.

  8. Jason H says:

    Although not perfect, there are approximate replacements for the 757, at least in terms of capacity.
    The 737-900ER carries around 180, which is close to the 200 that the 757-200 does, although with shorter range (most/all US domestic flights, but not transatlantic). For the 757-300 (which was never really that popular to begin with, probably due to internal competition with the 767), the 787-8 also seats around 240, and has higher range etc…
    That being said, the 757 does fill a useful role in some airlines’ fleets, but in the end, the lack of orders in the 2000s sort of speaks for its demand in the end.

  9. DesertGhost says:

    A rhetorical question: Do both Airbus and Boeing have to be everything to everyone?

    Maybe a hole in one’s offerings may be more profitable than trying to have a “complete” product line.

    I may be wrong, but I can see Boeing discontinuing the 747 at some point, and an Airbus A350-1100 may be too expensive to develop and produce.

  10. matt weber says:

    Several comments. First I don’t think the 747-8i was ever going to be ‘hot’ commodity. I think its real purpose was to make potential A380 buyers think long and hard about whether or not they really needed the A380. It seems to have done that very well, with A380 sales outside of Emirates going nowhere fast. As for an A380-NEO, it is due. The A380 engines are now a couple generations behind the latest and greatest. The reality in this business is that you usually have to ‘refresh’ the product periodically. The A380 is due. The problem is can you sell enough A380NEO’s to cover the non-recurring costs for any major R&D on a new engine. PW and GE were sufficiently unconvinced of the A380’s long term order position that they elected to share the costs and risk, and built was is essentially a derivative engine to hold down the costs further.

    There is considerably more to the A350-1000 Emirates order than you suggest. Tim Clark said a few years ago, the A350-1000 will be a great airplane if Airbus can actually build it. What is emerging today as the A350-1000 is both substantially heavier, and substantially less capable than the aircraft that was originally proposed. The weight growth has caused some serious engine issues, and EK felt that even with the uprated 97,000 pound thrust engine, the aircraft would be underpowered for the high temperatures common in the Middle East. Tim Clark wanted an even bigger engine, something around 105,000 pounds. I concur that the A350-800 is dead in the water. It is still years away, and like most airframe ‘shinks’, you don’t get much weight back when you shrink the aircraft, so the operating economics of the A350-800 probably are not all that attractive relative the 787-9

    I am going to take the contrarian view on the A330NEO. The A330 has sold quite well because it is capable airplane that serves a market that Boeing doesn’t really serve, just as the 777-300ER serves a marketplace that Airbus doesn’t really serve. However both the A330 and its stable mate, the A340 had very high deadweight per seat relative to the 787 (and many other aircraft was well), and that’s an issue that Airbus cannot easily address. If the existing A330’s can be re-engined, that is likely to sell well. If the A330NEO requires you to buy a new airframe, that probably won’t sell especially well. The 330NEO will come sole sourced with RR engines, and that automatically limits the interest in the upgrade for A330 operators using GE CF6 engines.

    The Direct Operating costs on the 787 with its much lower dead weight are substantially lower than the A330NEO, and as the price of fuel keeps going up, that spread will increase. There is a straight line relationship between dead weight per seat, and the fuel component of ASM cost. Generally the capital cost component in ASM is small relative to the fuel component.

    While it no longer appears to be done, in the past it was not unusual to swap out engines across the fleet to get newer, more capable and lower SFC engines. For example NW re-engined many of its 747-200’s for JT9-7Q and 7R engines to get more thrust and lower SFC, QF upgraded the RR engines in its 747 fleet to RB211-524D4X engines.to get more thrust and lower SFC. The DC8-70 is a re-engined DC8-60. For whatever reason, this activity seems to have fallen out of favor in the past 20 years.

  11. A says:

    While it’s exciting to see the whales that the 380 and 747 are I too agree that their market is limited. The real action is in the middle of Cranky’s chart. The interesting thing is that as amazing as the 787 is, what really hurts Airbus is they don’t have a good 777 competitor. Long term I think Airbus would’ve been a lot better served to develop a true 777 competitor instead of the 380 “halo” aircraft. Imagine if there were an Airbus today that was a direct competitor to the 777 but 10 years newer (development). Boeing would be much more worried than they are about a slow selling 747-8.

  12. Carl says:

    How does it make any sense for UA to add the A350 to their fleet rather than using the 787-10? Maintenance, pilot training, scheduling are all enhanced if they stay within the 787 family, even if they have to walk away from deposits. If Emirates can cancel their A350’s why can’t UA cancel theirs?

    • billy says:

      Now that the 777-9X is here, UAs A350 orders should be dispensed. They were to replace the 747. But now that Boeing has released a 10 across configuration of the 777-9x with 18″ wide seats; the comfort is better than the A350 and capacity is closer to the 747. UA has always loved their 777s. Eat the cancelation costs and get the more appropriate aircraft.

      • Carl says:

        That’s my point. The 787-10 will be here at the same time as the A350 is debugged, and it overlaps to such a significant extent in range and capacity, that I don’t see how it makes sense for UA to take on the costs of operating the A350 in addition to a large fleet of 787. If they want to do something with Airbus, in my opinion it would make more sense to order and operate Airbus single aisle (A320 family) simply because the narrowbody fleet is so much larger – that they could operate both A320 family and 737 family. Or… add the A330neo for routes that don’t require 787 range.

        I’m confused that UA hasn’t backed away from A350 given 787 capability and capacity.

        • billy says:

          Only problem with only using 787 family for widebodies at UA is the nominal 7020 nm range. AThis will not work from US to Australia. So 777-9x would need to run those routes to replace current 777-200 LAX and SFO to Sydñey route which was already a downgage from 747. So the 787-9 would have to be used which works for Melbourne (we hope) but not Sydney.Hong Kong would be aproblem as well. To sum up, the 787-10 has the capacity but not range for certain routes.All of UAs orders are for A350-1000 now in the a350 family. Certainly a cancellation of those orders in favour of the 777-9x. Boeeingwould probably throw in some really cheap 777-300s to tide UA over till the better -X planes arrive in 2020.

        • billy says:

          I should have clarifiedthat the 7020nm range is for the 787-10 only. The 787-9 is 8200 nm and 787-8 about 7700. These presentno range – just capacity problems.

  13. matt weber says:

    1). When UA ordered their A350’s, there was no such thing as a 787-10.

    2). EK can cancel almost any order they want, and make the cancellation part another A380 order, or they could invoke the walkaway clause in the guarantees. I suspect Airbus couldn’t get near the A350-1000 guarantees they put in the EK contract. Remember EK also canceled their entire A340-600 order. The aircraft wasn’t even close to contractual guarantees. If you have a multi billion dollar customer, there is a lot you are willing to put up with.

    . UA is in no position to place a new multi-billion dollar Airbus Order, so unless UA wants to cough up serious money in cancellation penalties (and remember, UA is positive allergic to spending money), UA is pretty much stuck with the A50’s they have ordered which may be a good thing or a bad thing.
    However it isn’t like UA is only getting a handful A350’s and 787’s. As long as both fleets are of reasonable size, the sparing and training issues are pretty minor.

  14. David says:

    Great article with no bias because nobody paid for this trip. Thank you and keep em coming.

    One thing I wonder about Hawaiian is why they have pretty much decided to become an all Airbus airline barring of course the MD 717’s which are no longer in production. One wonders what their eventual replacement will be? C-series?

    • billy says:

      Certainly not a good move by Hawaiian as they are losing market share to Alaska Air and United as a result and the A330s are not configured competitively for international expansion they hope to get…LOL

  15. No Fly Zone says:

    Great analysis, I think you nailed it. The missing components are price concessions and common brand fleets. I’m out of the price realm, but commonality -for those airlines that can manage it, is a Big Cost Saver. I think we’ll see more of that in the years to come. And, at the end of the trip, I think most pax – and pilots – have a slight preference for the Boeing product. I agree that the Very Large class, A380 and B747-8i are on their last legs. The next Jumbo hull loss accident will kill all but the freighters. -They are too big.

  16. Bob says:

    I fully agree that Boeing shud make a born again 757 for domestic service at least, the carriers are all eager to go heavy into 737 and 320 equip. How many times can you stretch Guppy ne Fat Albert and Airbus, the public needs a 757 neo. I grew up at Pan Am on the 747 and will be sad to see it gone. The more seat program for the 380 really showsthe urgent to to cut seat mile costs so they can just maybe start selling more but don’t hold your breath

  17. MC says:

    it is sad to me, Boeing should have remade the 757 but instead Airbus got all the business….Boeing could have fixed up the 757 to be a nice long to medium haul plane especially with airlines flying them to short European routes out of the Northeast…..Boeing and Airbus rely to much on the 737/A320 but Airbus stepped in with the A321 and Boeing lost a lot of business….they are relying to much on the 787

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