Today marks 370 days since the first flight of the Airbus A330-800 — the smaller of the two Airbus A330neo variants on offer to the world’s airlines as a modern, ‘cleaner’ widebody jet powered by new generation engines, and designed with an advanced high-span wing which in turn improves aerodynamics.
“There were people in the industry who said the A330-800 wouldn’t be built, and then they said it would never fly. We’re ready to bat the ball right down Boeing’s throat and come out fighting against the 787”— fighting talk at its best, from A330 marketing chief, Crawford Hamilton during the first flight of the A330-800 in November 2018.
But now over one year on since the world’s first A330-800 test jet took to the skies for the very first time, it’s Airbus that’s had to swallow the empty order book for the variant of the A330neo that “people claimed would never fly.”
The A330-800 currently has only two airline customers with firm orders, Kuwait Airways, the state-owned Kuwaiti national carrier, and Uganda Airlines, the recently resurrected African airline back in the skies after almost two decades out of action. Kuwait Airways have ordered eight of the aircraft, and Uganda has opted for just two — resulting in a final order book of…ten.
In June 2019, Airbus Chief Commercial Officer, Christian Scherer assured Aviation Analyst in Toulouse that he was “still confident” the manufacturer will secure “many, many more orders” for the A330-800. Paris Air Show — a chance for the world’s aircraft manufactuers to reveal sizeable aircraft order deals — concluded without a single order for the aircraft.
To add to the -800 headache, Kuwait Airways has signalled they do not wish to be the launch operator of the plane Airbus is struggling to sell, leaving Uganda Airlines, the revived carrier with no widebody or long-haul experience, set to become the first airline to operate this aircraft, if only by default.
The A330-800 variant of the A330neo has had a cloud hanging over it ever since its only customer at the time, Hawaiian Airlines, cancelled its order and switched to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
The two A330neo variants (-800 and -900) are very similar, perhaps too similar as is reflected by its weak order book. With a range of 8,150 nautical miles, the A330-800 will typically seat 220 to 260 passengers in three classes of service — compared with a longer-fuselage A330-900 version can accommodate between 260 and 300 seats in a typical three-class layout and has a range of around 7,200 nautical miles.
Furthermore, the A330-800 does not have any real scale advantage on the -900, just additional range — but nothing significant to set it apart from its big sister. For a similar price and commitment, the -900 is also able to seat 50 more passengers and has an overall better residual value.
While Airbus argues the A330-800 is a direct size market replacement for the A330-200 (in service with airlines including Oman Air, TAP Air Portugal, Alitalia and Qatar Airways), many A330-200s are far from retirement age — and if they are set to be replaced, several customer airlines are opting to ‘upgrade’ to the slightly larger variant A330-900, given the similar economics and seating capacity capabilities.
“Nobody wants to take delivery of a plane that has a very weak customer base. We’ve seen this before in history. However, for the A330-800, its customer base isn’t very weak…it’s virtually non-existent” one senior airline executive told Aviation Analyst in South East Asia. “It’s a great aircraft, but we don’t need to be offered two of the same, and we told Airbus this during their sales campaign” he added.
Earlier this year, Garuda Indonesia signed a letter of intent to acquire four Airbus A330-800s — but the status of the order is yet to progress, and no firm order agreement between the airline and Airbus has been reached.
The A330neo programme as a whole is widely considered a success, Airbus has secured orders for over 250 of the larger variant, the A330-900, and it’s already in service with airlines across the globe, including Air Mauritius, and Delta Air Lines.
Airbus had originally said they were due to conclude type certification for the A330-800 in mid-2019, followed by an entry-into-service in the second half of this year. But Airbus Chief executive Guillaume Faury has now confirmed the A330-800’s type certification has slipped to “early 2020” — without elaborating on the hold-up.