SEATTLE — European airplane giant Airbus on Wednesday pulled the trigger on a new single-aisle airplane strategy for the next 15 years, announcing it will offer two new engine choices on its A320 family of narrow-body jets.
The move puts Boeing in a difficult spot. Boeing executives have signaled clearly in the past months that they are unlikely to follow Airbus with a re-engining of their 737 single-aisle airliner, instead opting to go for a brand-new narrow-body jet some years down the line.
But in the interim, the updated A320 — to be available from spring 2016 and sporting next-generation engines from Pratt & Whitney or GE — will leapfrog the 737 in fuel-efficiency.
Airbus said the narrow-body jet, dubbed the A320neo, for "new engine option," will deliver fuel savings of up to 15 percent.
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All this year, both planemakers have studied the implications of choosing a single-aisle strategy.
Boeing is still holding open the option to follow Airbus and re-engine the 737 — technically a more difficult proposition, since the plane sits lower to the ground and its landing gear would need to be redesigned to hold the new engines.
But with its money and resources poured into fixing the troubled and much-delayed 787 Dreamliner and 747-8 jumbo jet, Boeing is reluctant to take on that project.
Boeing executives have repeatedly said that their airline customers are not so keen on a re-engined 737 and would prefer to wait for a replacement jet.
In contrast, Airbus executives have given the go-ahead even though Airbus, owned by European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., arguably faces more business challenges than Boeing. The Airbus A380 superjumbo is draining money and resources, and the proposed A350 wide-body is only in the early design phase.
"Finding the necessary resources for the A320neo wasn't exactly a walk in the park," said Airbus CEO Tom Enders.
Airbus said Wednesday that the A320neo will have up to 500 nautical miles extra range or two tons more payload than its current version. It expects to sell the A320neo through 2025.
"We are confident that the A320neo will be a great success across all markets," said Enders.
The reduction in fuel consumption will save airlines money and provide significant environmental benefits.
Airbus estimates that up to 3,600 tons of emissions saved annually per airplane, plus a double-digit reduction in NOx emissions and reduced engine noise.
Putting the latest engines on a mature and reliable airframe also positions Airbus well against the threat from new entrants in the single-aisle jet sector.