The first A330neo delivery took place this week. TAP officially took delivery of the aircraft, with two more due this year and 19 by the end of 2019. The event kicks off a major fleet refresh for the Portuguese flag carrier. In addition to the A330neo deliveries the carrier will also take four A321LRs and more than a dozen A320neo aircraft in 2019.
I am delighted to welcome the first Airbus A330-900 into our expanding fleet. Its unbeatable economics and efficiency will power our business forward. The new Airbus A330-900neo consume about 20% less fuel than our current fleet. By the end of next year, 37% of our medium haul fleet will have these new generation aircraft, and in the long haul fleet more than 70% of the block hours will be assured by these new aircraft. The A330neo will give us a lot of operational flexibility thanks to its commonality with the other Airbus aircraft in our fleet. This aircraft will be the first equipped with the new Airspace cabin, which is a new concept shaped to meet TAP’s ambition to offer the best product in the industry to our passengers. – Antonoaldo Neves, TAP Air Portugal’s CEO
TAP Air Portugal’s first A330-900 features 298 seats in a three-class layout with 34 full-flat business class, 96 economy plus and 168 economy class seats. The aircraft also features the latest generation in-flight entertainment system and connectivity, such as Wi-Fi. TAP is expected to operate the A330neo on routes to Brazil starting in December before eventually expanding to replace existing A330 services across Africa and the Americas.
While the delivery is an exciting event for Airbus, TAP and other airlines around the world it also comes far later than initially expected. The delays were driven by many factors, including the Rolls Royce Trent 7000 engines that power the aircraft. The new engines are a huge part of the ~20% improvement in fuel efficiency the A330neo offers over the prior generation. They also delivery some limitations today.
The aircraft enters service with ETOPS available up to 180 minutes, below the 330 minute target from Airbus. Fortunately very few routes require the 330 minute rating; none of TAP’s current services require it. But even the 180 minute allowance comes with a caveat. EASA granted the permission with a limit of only 500 engine cycles.
EASA’s formal approval process requires an engine to be tested to a simulation of 3,000 cycles of ETOPS operations including three “diversions” on the engine. Once complete the engine must be fully disassembled and inspected for any conditions that would adversely affect airworthiness. Owing to the delays in delivering the engines to Airbus and TAP the full analysis of the disassembled engine remains incomplete. EASA chose to grant the 180 minute ETOPS certification as a compromise. Rolls Royce has until the end of December to complete its analysis of the 330 minute simulation engine or the 180 minute allowance is subject to withdrawal.
Teasing the future
Is there really a Middle of Market demand and can Airbus fill it without a new design? The company is, once again, floating that idea. Even with the A321XLR being teased (MTOW >100t, 4,700nm range) the A330neo once again sees itself in play for the shorter, high volume routes that the A330 serves so often today. A full half of the type’s currently scheduled operations include segments under 2,000 miles.
The A330neo design increased in maximum take off weight and range since the type officially launched. It cannibalized the A350-800 market, causing Airbus to halt development of that aircraft. But the continually increasing range is at odds with the routes airlines like the A330 for. Put another way, it is entirely unclear which airlines the A330neo’s significant range boost is being developed for.
Read More: Second guessing the A330neo
Maybe there is some demand for the flights at a range significantly longer than the A330-200 could handle and they simply don’t exist yet because the type couldn’t support them economically. But the A350 could’ve handled that segment of the market with the A330neo crushing competition on shorter operations. Instead, Airbus now finds itself possibly delivering lower MTOW variant of the aircraft with a derated engine to reduce operating costs. This A330neo Regional option is akin to the similar model in the A330-300 line, with derated engines and a 26% lower OpEx according to Airbus numbers.
It is the type of plane that fits into so many growing airline fleet plans that it is a surprise Airbus did not offer it as the neo option from the get-go. Such a move would’ve certainly forced Boeing’s NMA hand sooner and likely at greater expense. Or maybe the 787-3 drawings would’ve come out of the dumpster. Even with a growing collection of airlines flying point-to-point rather than via hubs the demand for A330s on the much longer routes remains woefully low.