The first models of the type are expected to be delivered this fall.
The test aircraft, painted in the livery of launch customer TAP Portugal and almost completely configured with the airline's newest cabin update, flew in from the airline's Lisbon headquarters earlier in the day.
The flight is part of a series of flights — known as "route-proving" — required to show regulators the aircraft will be able to perform to the specifications Airbus has claimed. The flights test everything from fuel consumption to air flow in the cabin, meal services to baggage loading. Those types of items are generally considered among the last boxes to check in a new jet's test-flight program.
Airbus says it has 150 hours of such flights coming up, split into three stages. The first had already seen the jet visit Brazil earlier in the week, with Miami as the final stop before returning to Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France. Future stages will see the jet fly routes as long as Toulouse to Mauritius (5,670 miles) and as short as Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta (699 miles). The aircraft will also return to the U.S., visiting both Atlanta and Chicago.
As the A330neo's launch customer, the occasion also allowed Lisbon-based TAP Portugal an opportunity to show off its latest cabin overhaul several months ahead of taking delivery of its first version of the aircraft.
The new business class cabin will feature 298 seats in total, split between 34 in business and 268 in economy.
Regular business-class passengers on TAP can expect a fairly substantial upgrade from TAP's previous options. The airline chose a Recaro lie-flat seat, arranged in what's become the industry-standard 1-2-1 layout that guarantees direct-aisle access for each customer in the cabin. Other features include extra storage space, power and USB outlets, touch-button seat controls and a 16-inch swing-out inflight entertainment monitor.
The airline also chose Recaro for its economy cabin, which is split between standard coach and a 96-seat "Economy Xtra" section. Both seats are the same, with large seat-back monitors, headrests that adjust both on the sides and for the neck, and power outlets. Both are arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration, with 18” wide seats. The only difference between the two is pitch: 31” in coach, 34” in Xtra.
All cabins will feature Airbus' much vaunted AirSpace cabin improvements, which include larger overhead bins, new lighting options, and changes to the lavatories.
Since the particular plane shown off in Miami is still an active member of the A330neo test fleet, it also has a few features that won't exist after delivery. A test station and related equipment have been installed in the economy cabin, enough to occupy several rows worth of seats in the center of the cabin. Airbus engineers use the station to collect and analyse performance data for the aircraft.
TAP is expected to utilize most of the 21 A330neo jets on order to replace its existing fleet of current-generation Airbus A330s and A340s.
That's a replacement scenario Airbus sales teams are undoubtedly hoping to replicate among carriers now flying the approximately 1,200 older A330s already in service.
Both versions of the A330neo, a -900 and a smaller longer range -800, are intended to be direct replacements of the original A330-300 that first began flying 25 years ago. The newer versions can fly up to 20% more efficiently, Airbus says, in large part thanks to new, larger Rolls Royce engines, along with aerodynamic improvements and introduction of cross-over technology from Airbus' A350 program. Both versions of the neo are able to seat marginally more passengers than current-generation A330s.
But the neo's order book has struggled to gain traction since it first flew for Airbus in October 2017. The program claimed 212 firm orders at the time, but that tally has not changed substantially since. The -800 currently has no orders at all, after sole customer Hawaiian Airlines defected in favor of Boeing 787s in March.
“It's a slow burn,” acknowledges Thomas Burger, Airbus' A330 marketing director, before adding that Airbus expects orders to begin to flow as current-generation A330s retire.
Even Airbus' own chart emphasizes a long game: while the A330neo is due to enter service this year, the bulk of older model A330s needing replacement doesn't begin in earnest for another six years.
“We don't give it up if it's slow for a few years,” said Burger. “We know the market is out there. If we give it up, we lose that market,” he said.
(Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren - Today in the Sky / USA Today)