Airbus looks at offering 'lite' A330 to rival 7E7

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PARIS — Airbus may try to recertify its A330-220 for lighter loads and shorter distances — a move that would save airlines money — to compete with Boeing's new 7E7 Dreamliner.

Airbus said it's talking with Singapore Airlines and other carriers that it wouldn't name.

A recertified A330-200 "would be for use on shorter routes," Airbus Chief Executive Officer Nöel Forgeard said in an interview. It would be offered to customers to replace Airbus' own A300-600Rs and regional versions of Boeing's 767, he said.

Boeing is aiming to make the 7E7 about 20 percent more fuel efficient than the 757 and 767 models that it will replace.

Airbus, which now dominates the market for commercial planes in the 250-seat category with the A330-200, would apply to civil-aviation authorities to recertify the plane. Airlines would save money on a lighter plane because airport-landing fees are based on weight. A shorter-range plane with less thrust or power in its engines would use less fuel, which is 16 percent of an airline's cost.

The fuselage of the plane would remain unchanged, though some modifications might be made to save weight, such as removing galleys. Recertification at lower thrust would reduce the range of the plane to about 4,000 nautical miles from the 6,500 nautical miles of the standard A330-200, which still would be available.

Boeing estimates there will be a market for 3,500 planes the size of the 7E7 worth $400 billion over 20 years. That size category includes the A330-200.

"We find it interesting that Airbus is spending so much time talking about an airplane they say they are not worried about," said Randy Baseler, Boeing's vice president of airliner marketing, in an e-mailed response to questions. "Now it appears they may be trying to respond to a game-changing aircraft with a 'lite' version of a 15-year-old design."

A short-haul A330-200 might help Airbus slow 7E7 orders, though it won't stop the Boeing plane, said Richard Aboulafia, a vice president of Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group, an aerospace-industry consultancy.

"At most, they'll be able to preserve a small niche against the 7E7," Aboulafia said. "It's an interim stopgap measure. If Boeing succeeds with the 7E7, the A330 fleet is in trouble."

Aboulafia said manufacturers can change the rating on an airliner to use less fuel or require less maintenance, but it doesn't make the engine lighter.

International Lease Finance Corp. (ILFC), Airbus's single biggest customer and the world's biggest aircraft lessor, wants the European planemaker to go ahead with the lighter A330-200, in part because it would be available by 2005 or 2006, while the 7E7 isn't scheduled to enter service until 2008.

"We've spoken with Airbus about offering the plane to Singapore as an alternative to the 7E7," said ILFC Chief Operating Officer John Plueger in an interview. "The advantage is, they could deliver quickly. Obviously Airbus is looking very hard at the competitive landscape as it relates to the 7E7 and this may be one of the tools they come up with."