Amid the celebrations about another successful Airbus first flight, there was a large, but unmentioned, elephant formating with the A330neo as it swooped over Toulouse. For despite the apparently smooth maiden sortie, the reality is that flight testing should have been nearing completion right now, rather than just beginning. “We all know there is a challenging flight-test period ahead of us,” Rolls-Royce director for civil aerospace customers and services Dominic Harwood said at the event. “We’ve got to do it faster than ever before.” He is not wrong. And as his Airbus colleagues have no doubt pointed out, it is difficult to see past Derby as the prime reason for the delay.
The two A330-900 test airframes have been sitting in Toulouse, engineless, since the spring – when they were due to fly – as R-R worked furiously to deliver the initial batch of Trent 7000s. When the re-engined twinjet was launched amid a flurry of orders at Farnborough 2014, Airbus was ambitiously aiming for a 42-month interval to service entry – far shorter than that for the A320neo. But launch operator TAP Portugal, which should have been readying now to introduce the twinjet, is instead crossing its fingers that the test programme will stay on track to allow deliveries to start in mid-2018. Even that plan looks ambitious, given the unknowns of flight testing.
But if all the stars align it should still be achievable. The test schedule is one of several pressing issues that the programme faces. Airbus must regain the sales momentum it had after it launched the re-engining effort. Although orders at first flight had reached an impressive 212, only two of those have been signed this year. Admittedly the programme is at that difficult phase when potential customers tend to hold off ordering to see how flight testing progresses and any new orders will have long delivery times. It will be crucial then that the A330neo and its Trent 7000s hit the numbers on their efficiency promises. The other headache for Airbus is around proving the viability of the smaller -800 derivative and ensuring it avoids the fate of its A350 XWB namesake by becoming surplus to requirements. Hawaiian is the only signatory so far, and that order is looking a little shaky as the carrier evaluates alternatives. But the good news is that the existing A330 family has a backlog of over 320 aircraft, representing a healthy four years of production at current rates. Not bad for a design that first took to the skies 25 years ago on 2 November.